How to color a lizard: from biology to mathematics

From the clown fish to leopards, skin colour patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among coloured cells that obey equations discovered by the mathematician Alan Turing. Today, researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics report in the journal Nature that a southwestern European lizard slowly acquires its intricate adult skin colour by changing the colour of individual skin scales using an esoteric computational system invented in 1948 by another mathematician: John von Neumann. The Swiss team shows that the 3D geometry of the lizard’s skin scales causes the Turing mechanism to transform into the von Neumann computing system, allowing biology-driven research to link, for the first time, the work of these two mathematical giants.

Reference: A living mesoscopic cellular automaton made of skin scales. Liana Manukyan, Sophie A. Montandon, Anamarija Fofonjka, Stanislav Smirnov & Michel C. Milinkovitch. Nature 544, 173–179, (13 April 2017), doi:10.1038/nature22031

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