Lists of Nobel Prizes and Laureates

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Genetic mechanisms

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
Research field:
Genetics and developmental biology
Born: 1942 in Heyrothsberge, Germany

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1995 for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development together with Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus

She is the sixth woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Of the 201 individuals awarded the Medicine Prize between 1901 and 2012, ten are women.


“As I was lazy and rarely did my homework, I finished high school with a rather mediocre exam. I almost did not pass in English language.”

At the age of 12, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard decided to become a biologist. She spent  a long time considering  which research field to go into and finally decided to study the development of fruit flies, the tiny flies you find hovering around rotten fruit. Scientists have used them for over a hundred years to find out more about genes.

Nobel Prize-awarded discovery

Christiane’s research has helped us understand how a one-cell embryo develops into a complex built-up living creature. She was interested in how the cells of a fertilized egg specialize, that is how some cells form the head and others form the tail for instance. To study this she used the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, because two thirds of its genes are the same as in humans. Another advantage to studying fruit flies is their fast development from embryo to grown up fly in nine days.

To find out which genes are involved when different parts of the body are formed, the fruit flies are treated with chemicals that mutate their genes. Together with her colleague Eric Wieschaus, Christiane spent a year studying embryos of fruit flies parents with different mutations. They used a microscope in which two persons can study the samples at the same time. After analyzing tens of thousands of fruit flies they identified 15 genes that control how the body parts are formed.

map oslo stockholmMating fruit flies. Photo: TheAlfaWolf, 2007 (GNU Free Documentation License)

Christiane has said she loved studying the flies. She worked so hard she even dreamed about them. Many of the mutant flies she identified  were given amusing names such as Hedgehog, Cripple and Cucumber. The nicknames reflect the mutant flies' appearance: for instance, fly larvae with an abnormal hedgehog gene have tags like a hedgehog.

Benefit for mankind

The 15 genes Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus identified control the formation of the fruit flies' body segments. Since these genes also exist in humans and in other vertebrates, their research helps us to understand how our own bodies are formed and how human birth defects occur.



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