Considered a brilliant but lazy student by her teachers, Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard excelled in the classes she found interesting but quickly gave up in classes that bored her. She repeated this pattern in her university studies if she got bored with a project she would move on to something new, often times not finishing the first.
Starting off at the University of Frankfurt she quickly became bored with the biology offerings and expanded to taking courses in physics and chemistry. Looking for a more challenging experience she transferred to the University of Tübingen to study in the school’s new biochemistry program. While she didn’t like the program very much it did give her a chance to attend lectures at the Max Planck Institute for Virology and learn about new topics in biology. While working on her doctorate she developed a new method for large scale purification of very clean RNA polymerase but she had grown bored with the work and longed to move to something new.
Enter Drosophila, a type of fruit fly, and Nüsslein-Volhard’s postdoctoral work completing a large-scale genetic screen of mutant fly embryos that lacked the bicaudal gene and the determination of all the other genes involved in the mutant phenotype. The work was tedious at best and not being one to accept tedium she helped to develop new methods for collecting and harvesting the fly embryos and identifying the mutant phenotypes. Using these new techniques she was able to identify a second gene, later called dorsal, that appeared to influence pattern formation in fly embryos.
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995 for discoveries concerning the 15 genes that control early embryonic development of fruit flies she shared the prize with two colleagues.
In the 1980s, she started using zebrafish as a model to study vertebrate development publishing Zebrafish: A Practical Approach in 2002 which serves as a lab manual for working with the species–now a standard vertebrate research model.
Currently the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard continues to try and answer the new questions continually being posed by science.
Written by Angela Goad