Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Biography (1942-)

genetic researcher

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was born on October 20, 1942, in Magdeburg,Germany. The daughter of Rolf Volhard, an architect, and Brigitte (Hass) Volhard, a musician and painter. And while few women of her generation chose scientific careers, Nüsslein-Volhard found that being female in a male-dominated field presented little in the way of an obstacle to her studies. She received degrees in biology, physics, and chemistry from Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-University in 1964 and a diploma in biochemistry from Eberhard-Karls University in 1968. In 1973 she earned a Ph.D. in biology and genetics from the University of Tübingen. Nüsslein-Volhard was married for a short time asa young woman and never had any children. She decided to keep her husband'slast name because it was already associated with her developing scientific career.

In the late 1970s Nüsslein-Volhard finished post-doctoral fellowships inBasel, Switzerland, and Freiburg, Germany, and accepted her first independent research position at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. She was joined there by Eric F. Wieschaus who was also finishing his training. Because of their common interest in Drosophila, or fruit flies, Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus decided to work together to find out how a newly fertilized fruit fly egg develops into a fullysegmented embryo.

Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus chose the fruit fly because of its incredibly fast embryonic development. They began to pursue a strategy for isolating genes responsible for the embryos' initial growth. This was a bold decisionby two scientists just beginning their scientific careers. No one had done anything like this before, and it wasn't certain whether they would be able toactually isolate specific genes.

Their experiments involved feeding male fruit flies sugar water laced with chemicals that damaged the files' deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). When the male fruit flies mated with females, the females often produced dead or mutated embryos. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus studied these embryos for over a year under a microscope which had two viewers, allowing them to examine an embryo at the same time. They were able to identify specific genes that basicallytold cells what they were going to be--part of the head or the tail, for example. Some of these genes, when mutated, resulted in damage to the formation of the embryo's body plan.

Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus published the results of their research in the English scientific journal Nature in 1980. They received a greatdeal of attention because their studies showed that there were a limited number of genes that control development and that they could be identified. Thiswas significant because similar genes existed in higher organisms and humansand, importantly, these genes performed similar functions during development. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus's breakthrough research could help other scientists find genes that could explain birth defects in humans. Their research could also help improve in-vitro fertilization and lead to an understanding of what causes miscarriages.

In 1991 she and Wieschaus received the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award,which is considered second only to the Nobel. During this time Nüsslein-Volhard had begun new research at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen,Germany, similar to the work she did on the fruit flies. This time she wantedto understand the basic patterns of development of the zebra fish. She chosezebra fish as her subject because most of the developmental research on vertebrates in the past was on mice, frogs, or chickens, which have many technical difficulties, one of which was that one couldn't see the embryos developing. Zebra fish seemed like the perfect organism to study because they are small, they breed quickly, and the embryos develop outside of the mother's body. The most important consideration, however, was the fact that zebra fish embryos are transparent, which would allow Nüsslein-Volhard a clear view of development as it was happening.

Despite her prize-winning research on fruit flies, she received skeptical feedback on her zebra fish work. Other scientists claimed it was risky and foolish. When she submitted papers about her laboratory's work for publication, one reviewer even asked her why she was bothering. Nüsslein-Volhard was not one to be stopped by criticism or to rest on her laurels. Even though her reputation was built on her fruit fly research, her love of new challenges pushed her to take on this risky new project and set her sights to the future.

On October 9, 1995, in the midst of criticism about her new research, Nüsslein-Volhard (the first German woman to win in this category), Wieschaus, and Edward B. Lewis of the California Institute of Technology won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on genetic development in Drosophila. Lewis had been analyzing genetic mutations in fruit flies sincethe forties and had published his results independently from Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus.

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