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JBS Haldane Lecture 2017


Professor Enrico Coen is a plant developmental geneticist who is fascinated by how patterns of gene activity can lead to the generation of tissue shapes, like petals, wings or hearts. Working together with computer scientists and mathematicians he arrived at simple and testable hypotheses for the genetic control of shape formation.

A key concept to emerge was the central role that tissue polarity plays in defining local orientations of growth, and thus the final shape that emerges. Based on this notion he has demonstrated how even very complex shapes, like that of the snapdragon flower, can be explained by relatively simple rules. The breadth of his approach is illustrated by his books The Art of Genes and  Cells to Civilizations (shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society popular science book prize) in which he shows how a common set of principles may underlie biological transformations from evolution and development to learning and cultural change. The books illustrate Coen's drive to integrate ideas across disciplines and to communicate science to a broad audience.  In recognition of his work, Coen was awarded the Croonian Medal of the Royal Society this year.