25 years ago: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard receives the Nobel Prize for Medicine

Foto: l'Oreal

On October 9, 1995, it was announced that Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard would be the first German woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Together with the U.S. Americans Edward B. Lewis and Eric Wieschaus, the biochemist and honorary senator of the Max Planck Society was awarded for her discoveries on the genetic control of early embryonic development. According to the scientist, the day changed many things in her life. Since her retirement, the Nobel Prize winner, who was born in Magdeburg in 1942, has been able to devote herself more to the freedom of her own basic research.

Above all, it is the issues of developmental biology and genetics that concern her. Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, she discovered numerous genes that play a controlling role in the formation of shape. The identification and description of these genes has contributed significantly to understanding mechanisms of embryonic development. In a modified form, many of these genes also play central roles in vertebrates and in the development of diseases such as cancer.

Pioneer in genetic research

As Max Planck Research Group Leader at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory and later as Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, the basic researcher discovered further molecular factors that are responsible for the development of embryonic axes and first divisions in the egg of the fruit fly. For the first time, she documented the existence of morphogenic, shape-forming substances which, depending on their concentration, activate certain genes and thus coordinate shape formation during development.

Since the early 1990s, her research group has focused on the development and genetics of the zebrafish Danio rerio. Their systematic studies have contributed significantly to establishing this fish as a model organism for basic medical research.

More recently, her research has also focused on processes of cell migration during organ development and with the development of the skin and its specializations. Her Emerita group is investigating which genes control the formation of the striped color pattern of the zebrafish. A central goal is to find genes that play a role in the variation of color patterns of related species during evolution.

Genetic engineering can do much, but not everything

As a member of the German Ethics Council, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has always faced and openly discussed the critical questions of genetic engineering. In an interview with Spiegel magazine on the occasion of her 75th birthday, she explained: "People always pretend that they can now simply change people at will. I still consider this to be an absolute illusion. One does not know exactly which gene in humans is responsible for what. Therefore, targeted manipulation is not possible, not even with new methods.

In other respects, too, a lack of knowledge about biological interrelationships sometimes contributes to things being overinterpreted or misunderstood: "There is a lot of talk about the environment, insects and biodiversity, but people know surprisingly little," said the developmental biologist in a recent interview with the German Press Agency.

For more women in research, but no quotas

For many years Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has been committed to the promotion of female scientists. She herself was still an exception when she was appointed director of the Max Planck Society. The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation for Women in Science, which she founded in 2004 and in which she is still active today as chairwoman, supports talented young women scientists with children to give them the freedom and financial support they need for a scientific career. However, she considers it unworthy of the foundation to maintain a women's quota.

For more women in research, but no quotas

For many years Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has been committed to the promotion of female scientists. She herself was still an exception when she was appointed director of the Max Planck Society. The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation for Women in Science, which she founded in 2004 and in which she is still active today as chairwoman, supports talented young women scientists with children to give them the freedom and financial support they need for a scientific career. However, she considers it unworthy of the foundation to maintain a women's quota.

Numerous awards and prizes

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has received numerous awards, honorary doctorates and prizes for her work, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (1986), the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1991) and the Nobel Prize for Medicine (1995).She is a member of the Royal Society (England), the National Academy (USA), the Orden pour le mérite (Germany), the Leopoldina (Germany), the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie (Germany), the Kurie der Wissenschaft (Austria) and the Académie des Sciences (France). From 2001 to 2006 she was a member of the National Ethics Council of the Federal Government. She was President of the Society of German Natural Scientists and Physicians (2008) and Secretary General of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) (from 2003 to 2009).  From 2005 to 2011 she was a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC) of the European Union, and since 2013 she has been Chancellor of the Order Pour Le Mérite.

Furthermore, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard supports young researchers on their way to an own scientific career. This summer, she was appointed Honorary Senator of the Max Planck Society. With this award, the members of the General Assembly of the Max Planck Society honored her decades of top-level research and emphasized her extraordinary commitment to the advancement of women scientists.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard published about 200 publications in scientific journals, numerous newspaper articles (FAZ, Die Zeit) on current topics, as well as a number of books that are generally understood: 2004 "Das Werden des Lebens" (The Becoming of Life) by C.H. Beck Verlag, and "Von Genen und Embryonen" (Of Genes and Embryos) by Reclam Verlag, and 2017 "Schönheit der Tiere" (Beauty of Animals) by Matthes and Seitz. In 2006 "Mein Kochbuch" was published by Insel Verlag.