Nautilus

Organized Chaos Makes the Beauty of a Butterfly

Take a look at a butterfly’s wing, and you can learn a lesson about life. Not that it’s beautiful, or fragile, or too easily appreciated only when it’s fading—though all that is true, and evident in a wing.

Look very close, at the edge of a pattern, where one color turns to another. The demarcation isn’t so abrupt as it seems at arm’s length. It’s not a line, but rather a gradient.

This is a lesson about uncertainty.

A butterfly’s colors come from its scales, each a single cell, pigmented a single hue. At pattern boundaries, scales of different colors intermingle. Transitions and shading are achieved by varying the proportions of the mix. It’s beautiful. It is also, in the language of molecular biology, a model for a stochastic mechanism of gene expression.

Each scale’s fate is not preordained. Cells on the surface of a swallowtail’s wings, for example, were not originally specialized to be yellow or blue or black. Instead they contain genes potentially capable of

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