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.”
Early Life and Career
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was born on October 20, 1942, in Magdeburg,Germany. She was the daughter of Rolf Volhard, an architect, and Brigitte Volhard, a musician and painter. She was the second of five children and lived in Frankfurt. Christiane enjoyed school and from an early age was interested in plants and animals.
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.
Career and Contribution
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. She began her collaboration with geneticist Eric 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 scientists identified about 20,000 genes in the fly’s chromosomes. Of these approximately 5,000 genes were important to early development and 139 genes were essential to it. They succeeded in identifying and classifying the 15 genes that direct the cells to form a new fly.
In awarding the Nobel Prize, 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 useful insights into human disease.
In 1986, she was honored with the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the highest award in German research. She also won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1991.
In 1995 she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis.
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.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has been awarded many honorary degrees including an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in June 2005 by Oxford University. The asteroid 15811 Nüsslein-Volhard is named in her honor.