Christiane Nusslein-Volhard

Christiane Nusslein-Volhard

The German biologist, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is renowned for her embryonic development of fruit flies. Her contribution earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with American geneticists Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis. In the Nobel Banquet Speech held on 10 Dec 1995, she said:

“The three of us have worked on the development of the small and totally harmless fruit fly, Drosophila. This animal has been extremely cooperative in our hands – and has revealed to us some of its innermost secrets and tricks for developing from a single celled egg to a complex living being of great beauty and harmony. … None of us expected that our work would be so successful or that our findings would ever have relevance to medicine.”

In 1986, she was honored with the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the top credit awarded in German research. She also won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1991. Since 2001 she has been member of the Nationaler Ethikrat (National Ethics Council of Germany) for the ethical assessment of new developments in the life sciences and their influence on the individual and society.

Oxford University awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Science degree during June 2005.

Early Life, Career and Contribution:

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was born on October 20, 1942, in Magdeburg,Germany. She is the daughter of Rolf Volhard, an architect, and Brigitte Volhard, a musician and painter. She completed her degrees in biology, physics, and chemistry from Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-University in 1964, a diploma in biochemistry (1968) and a doctorate in biology and genetics (1973) from Eberhard-Karl University of Tubingen. Nüsslein-Volhard was married briefly as a young woman and never had any children.

After finishing her postdoctoral fellowships in Basel, Switzerland, and Freiburg, Germany, she accepted her first independent research position at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany began her collaboration with Wieschaus in the late 1970’s at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. In 1981, she returned to Tübingen, where since 1985 she has served as director of the genetics division of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology.

Wieschaus and Nüsslein-Volhard chose the fruit fly because of its amazingly rapid embryonic development. Together they designed a new genetic tool, saturation mutagenesis, which involved mutating adult fly genes and observing the effects on their offspring. Using a dual microscope, which permitted them to examine one specimen at the same time, the collaborators eventually identified, among about 20,000 genes in the fly’s chromosomes, approximately 5,000 genes important to early development and 139 genes essential to it. They also acknowledged three types of fruit fly genes that generate the blueprint for the insect’s body plan. In awarding the prize to the collaborator, the Nobel Assembly predicted that their discoveries would “explain congenital malformations in man.”

By the late 1990’s her studies of zebra fish mutants had founded a system for studying the process of blood creation and provided imperative insights into human disease.