Concept 37 Master genes control basic body plans.
Eric Wieschaus and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard isolated and characterized many of the genes necessary for early embryonic development in Drosophila. Ed Lewis characterized one of the first homeotic mutations.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1942-)
Christiane (Janni) Nüsslein-Volhard was born in Frankfurt, Germany during World War II. Her father was an architect, and both parents were artistic in that they both painted and were musicians. Although the arts were a frequent pasttime, and Nüsslein-Volhard learned to play the flute, she was more interested in plants and animals. By age twelve, Nüsslein-Volhard knew that she wanted to be a biologist.
Nüsslein-Volhard was considered by her high school teachers to be a gifted but lazy student. She worked hard only on the subjects that interested her. At the end of high school, Nüsslein-Volhard worked for a month as a nurse just to make sure that she wouldn't be more interested in a career in medicine. She wasn't and went to Frankfurt University to study biology.
Nüsslein-Volhard found the biology courses rather dull, and when she found out the University of Tübingen would be offering a biochemistry program — the first of its kind in Germany at the time — Nüsslein-Volhard quickly decided to transfer. She finished her degree in 1969 and did graduate work determining promoter regions in phage. When she finished her Ph.D. in 1974, she wanted a new challenge and began to investigate the idea of using genetics to study developmental problems. She read a review about some Drosophila mutants and became interested in the bicaudal mutation. At a meeting in Freiburg in 1973, Nüsslein-Volhard approached Walter Gehring and asked if she could do post-doctoral work on bicaudal in his lab. He agreed and she moved to Basel in 1975.
Nüsslein-Volhard found Drosophila fascinating; she learned to screen for mutants and developed techniques to analyze the mutations. She also met Eric Wieschaus who was finishing his Ph.D. thesis in Gehring's lab. After two years in Gehring's lab, Nüsslein-Volhard moved back to Freiburg to work with Klaus Sander who was an insect embryologist, and was the first to describe gradients in the insect egg. Sander's experiments influenced Nüsslein-Volhard's thinking, especially on some of the Drosophila mutants she was working on like bicaudal and dorsal.
In 1978, Nüsslein-Volhard accepted a job at the new European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Eric Wieschaus was hired at the same time. The two began working together to analyze embryonic Drosophila mutants and developed a screen to isolate new mutations. Within three years, Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus' labs managed to isolate enough mutants and work out the major events in embryonic Drosophila development. They published their results in a landmark paper in Nature in 1980. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus shared the 1995 Nobel Prize with Ed Lewis for their work in Drosophila development.
In 1981, Nüsslein-Volhard moved to the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory in Tübingen where she had a junior investigator. She continued to work on Drosophila, screening for and isolating new maternal mutations that affected development. Her lab also began working on the molecular biology aspects of the mutations. In 1985, Nüsslein-Volhard was appointed Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Entwicklungsbiologie (Developmental Biology) in Tübingen, a position she still holds now.
Nüsslein-Volhard's lab currently works with Drosophila, and also uses zebrafish as a model to study vertebrate development - an interest Nüsslein-Volhard developed in the mid '80s.
Nüsslein-Volhard is said to be an excellent cook, and often brought in meals to feed members of the lab. She also likes gardening and listening to music.
Ed Lewis worked on the bithorax complex for over a decade. Most people in the Drosophila field already knew the results from various meetings before Lewis submitted the paper for publication.
How many genes would it take to "build" a living organism?