Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard discovered how genes regulate the process of a single egg cell’s development into an entire animal. A question that had perplexed and fascinated scientists for ages! She was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximeno Lopez & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” — Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

This statement succinctly summarizes the amazing diversity of life forms that have inhabited the earth. But what is even more fascinating is the fact that all life forms begin as a single cell, which will either specialize or divide to form the tiniest of microbes to the most giant plants and animals.

The egg cell stores all the information required to make a complete animal like a computer program, which is executed in a tightly regulated fashion. As an egg cell divides, parts of the developmental program are run at specific times and in spatially restricted cell types. This ensures that the gene responsible for making ears are only expressed in the head and the one for fingers are only expressed in the limbs, but nowhere else. Each step of this process is tightly regulated, which unfolds as a precise orchestration of gene activity.

Scientists trying to decipher this complex phenomenon got an impetus from the work of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard when she discovered the genes that were responsible for the early stages of the developmental program, also known as embryogenesis.

Making of a scientist

Christiane knew from an early age, 12 to be precise, that she wanted to be a biologist. A passion she inculcated exploring the wilderness during her growing up years in Frankfurt, or spending time on the farm with her grandparents during vacations. She was the second child of Rolf and Brigitte Volhard, and born on October 20th, 1942 in Magdeburg, Germany. Her father was an architect and her mother was a musician and painter, they both were very supportive and encouraging of her interests. The family had meager means, as they were living in post World War II Germany, which meant that they had to be innovative. Her parents would make books and toys for their five kids, and taught them to be resourceful. This experience helped Christiane later in life, when she would utilize the handicraft skills to build tools for her experiments in the lab.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Christiane briefly entertained the idea of becoming a doctor, but quickly concluded it was not meant for her after doing a short nursing course. She was never the topper, and was an average student through school and college, but she was very dedicated and did particularly well in the subjects that she liked. She started college at Frankfurt University, but did not find the curriculum challenging enough for her. When she learnt that University of Tübingen was offering a first of its kind course on Biochemistry, she moved to the city to get a diploma. She specialized in molecular biology for her graduate studies where she investigated the promoter regions of phages, obtaining a Ph.D. in 1974.

Groundbreaking discoveries in the fruit fly model

Christiane developed an interest in Developmental Biology after she joined Walter Gehring’s lab in Basel, Switzerland for her postdoc. There she struck a chord with Eric Wieschaus, a graduate student finishing his Ph.D. thesis, who helped her grasp the new topic. This was the first time she was introduced to fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), which she fell in love with, and would dream about these tiny creatures.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus at EMBL. Image source: Cold Spring Harbor Labs.

She was appointed junior faculty at the European Molecular Biology Laboratories (EMBL), Heidelberg, where she worked between 1978–1981. She started a collaboration with the recently appointed Eric Wieschaus, to identify the genes responsible for fruit fly embryo development through a mutagenesis screen. It was an efficient close-knit team, with the two of them doing all the experiments and one technician helping with maintaining fly cultures.

The landmark discovery of developmental genes was on the cover of the journal Nature Vol. 287 in 1980. Image courtesy: Annual Reviews Cell Developmental Biology

Their screen successfully identified 120 genes that were important for embryonic development. The tools for creating mutations already existed, but what Christiane and Eric had succeeded in doing was to scale up the process such that they could screen for multiple mutations at the same time. Their success lied in looking at the pattern on larval cuticle (which is like a thick skin) instead of adult flies as readouts for the effects of the mutations.

These genes were later shown to have similar roles in other animals, including humans. This led to better understanding of congenital defects that arise in humans after birth or certain developmental defects arising during pregnancy. Such was the impact of their discovery, that they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995, along with Edward Lewis.

A lasting pursuit of understanding beauty in nature

Another outcome of the precise orchestration of the developmental program is ‘Pattern Formation’. The beautifully patterned peacock feathers, or the spots on a tiger’s skin, are few of the most striking examples.

After working on fruit flies for a few years Christiane decided to switch gears and started investigating the genetic basis of striped blue-green patterns on the zebrafish (Danio rerio) in the late 1980’s. This was considered a risky proposition as it was not an established model animal, but Christiane saw the opportunity and started building facilities for rearing the fishes in her lab at Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen. Fishes have a transparent body, lay their eggs externally, and have a rudimentary spinal cord. All these factors make them ideal to carry out experimentation that would be otherwise be difficult in other animal like humans or mice.

“Creativity is combining facts no one else has connected before”

Her training in arts provides Christiane with a unique perspective of probing the world around her. In her current pursuit to understand the science behind the enormous beauty that nature carries, identifying the genes responsible for pattern formation is the just beginning.

Championing scientists for the cause of science

True greatness comes with selflessness. Not only is Christiane an accomplished scientist, she has been a great mentor for many scientists trained in her lab and are now successfully leading their own labs. She is commonly known as Janni, a nickname fondly used by her colleagues and lab members. Although promoting people into scientific careers, she realizes the struggles that scientists face today and does not paint a rosy picture about the challenges-

“I find it quite ambiguous to talk people into doing science nowadays because I don’t necessarily see it as a very nice or easy job.”

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

As a Director at Max Planck Institute she started the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (CNV) Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Research in 2004, to financially support women in science with kids. She herself was briefly married at a young age but was divorced (she chose to retain her adopted surname for professional consistency) and does not have any children. She realizes how unfair it is for female scientists to manage research with family as they always have more domestic responsibilities than their male counterparts, and wants to alleviate it through the CNV foundation. Outside of work, she loves to cook, and plays the flute for selected audiences, and remains close to her family. Not only does she shine scientifically, she also proves to be an exemplary human being.

Timeline:

1942 — Born in Magdeburg, Germany to Rolf Volhard and Brigitte (Haas) Volhard

1964- Received undergraduate degree from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt

1968- Diploma in Biochemistry from Eberhard-Karl University of Tübingen

1974- Ph. D. degree from Eberhard-Karl University of Tübingen

1975- Joined postdoc in Walter Gehring’s lab at Basel, Switzerland and first time worked with fruit flies

1978- Appointed junior faculty at European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg

1981- Became Junior Investigator at Friedrich Miescher Laboratory, Tübingen

1985- Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen

1995- Won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Eric Wieschaus and Edward Lewis

2014- Director Emeritus of Research Group “Colour Pattern Formation” at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology, Tübingen

Further reading:

https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-cellbio-113015-023138

About the author:

DR. SUMBUL JAWED KHAN

Content Editor,Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:

MILER XIMENA LÓPEZ

Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

About the series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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