Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard


Interview, July 2003

Interview with Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 53rd meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 30 June-4 July 2003.

Professor Nüsslein-Volhard talks about why scientists have to be humble; how our daily habits are often more important than our genetic background (2:55); the genomic project she is involved in (4:49); ways to encourage female scientists (6:41); how curiosity drove her to science (9:35); how the Nobel Prize was an interruption of her career (10:45); the change of direction in her research (14:15); and her present work (17:47).

Interview transcript

Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, it’s so nice to have you here in Lindau. What you said today, that scientists have to be humble, could you explain that a little bit more?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes. The importance of genes was of course recognised very early on and I think the term gene was coined about 100 years ago and I knew they were sort of carrying the information from which determining living organisms. Then people set out with the human genome project to decipher all the genes in humans and they had the vision, I think, that when they had deciphered them, they would know a lot more about humans than they knew before and the written out genome would tell them everything about humans.

This is a pretty naïve view and there are rather a large number of surprises which came out after the whole genome project was done and one was, for example, that the number of genes was much smaller than the number of say phenotypes or traits which you can see features of an organism of a human being, if a lot of features you can write out, I mean enormously large numbers of features and it’s impossible that for each feature you have a specific gene. Actually this is a notion that you don’t have a one to one correlation between affinity, big feature and a gene, that is a notion also geneticists know and geneticists have phrase for example, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Nobel Laureate I think 1930 or so, he did sort of say that in his lecture and for fly geneticists it’s obviously that there are many more than one gene determining the eye colour for example of a fly and if you look at a wing, there are many genes which determine the wing.

… analysing a gene or diagnosing a particular gene doesn’t really tell you everything …

On the other hand, what we also observe in studying genetics or developmental genetics in flies or fishes also, when you have one particular gene and you hit it, then you have effects on many more than one trait and in the display of the human genome, it’s very clear that the 35,000 genes or so can also only function this way, namely that you have a complex interaction, a complex relationship between features and gene and this means also that in analysing a gene or diagnosing a particular gene doesn’t really tell you everything about what the human being would look like and this is something people had expected, that they would be able to predict and then they thought, I know the gene, I can take it in or out and this is what I mean with more humble.

What does it actually mean for example to the general public? There has been a lot of talks about gene testing and by doing that we could prevent people from getting sick and so on, but it seems like that is not actually applicable?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: In some cases yes, I mean there are some various genes with simple causes, namely just one mutation and these are rare cases but these are the inherited diseases, monogenic inherited diseases, and this is actually true when you diagnose it. You know that this person, if the gene is defective in both copies, then you know you can predict with 100% certainty this child will be ill, and this type of diagnosis is of course valuable when it’s done, but the other type of predictions do not hold true because, as I said, traits depend on many genes and a gene has different effects on. So there are many diseases which are probably where you have a predisposition with a particular genetic background that you might get it more frequently than other people might get some diseases but it’s never totally predictable and this is why the diagnosis doesn’t really help you much.

I mean it doesn’t really help you to be told by your diagnosis that you have a 5% higher chance to develop a certain type of cancer, this you don’t need to know that and it’s like, if you eat Birchermüesli every breakfast, you might acquire some strange disease with 5% more frequency than something else, I mean so your daily habits are as or more important than your … well it’s tough, it’s really something which is sort of difficult to say with uncertainty, but in many respects, the daily habits are more influential of your disease pattern than your genes, your genetic background.

So the risks, we’re not talking about one in certain groups of people are talking about, you can’t see when it’s going to be misused in a certain way?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: I don’t think it’s misused yet, people are afraid of it might be misused but on the other hand, there is also value in finding out about the relation between several particular predispositions. You might be more careful if you are told that your genetic background is such that you shouldn’t eat fat in large amounts or so, it does help you change your life a little bit and so it’s not so bad, but it’s hard to find out which genetic background is causing these things.

And this is why we have now these genomic projects where populations are tested, the genome is analysed, a pattern of variants is sort of recorded and then their habits and their way of life is recorded, and then also their disease pattern is recorded. And then you might find a correlation between some diseases and a genetic predisposition and this is a little bit the hope now that you might find which dispositions are particularly prone for certain irregularities and this might to help people change your diet or run longer every morning or don’t run at all or something like that. But it will not have a big effect, it will not have a big effect and it will be so uncertain that it might not be widely used perhaps.

With your scientific work, I think there are a lot of students who need role models and I would say a lot of female students need role models as well, we don’t see as many female students, I mean scientists, yet. Do you think there is a way to encourage more female scientists?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: In Germany it’s very clear what you could do and the thing is you have to have better schools, you have to have day schools and you have to educate the people, having someone else educate your child is often better for the child than you do it yourself, but this is not generally accepted in Germany. So many women just are sort of torn between the two things, they want to do the best for their children and they want to do a good job, but I think there is still a distrust that if you let your child be brought up by a day Mother or in a day care, that it might not be as good for the child as you wish and this is also perhaps in many cases true, because there is not a large culture of day cares in Germany, in contrast to the Scandinavian countries I think. There it is clear from looking at the results now that for the children it’s as good or even better if they are with other children and they are educated by a professional. For women in Germany, the big problem is they usually tend to interrupt and they are slowed down in their progress and they can’t compete as much as they should with men who don’t have to do that.

If you look for example at a female athlete or sports people, I mean they are more celebrated and honoured and they get funding from companies and so on. Will there be such a way to sort of move forward and make science a little bit more popular?

… it’s not really attractive to be a successful female scientist …

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes, this is another thing. It was this morning, the speeches by the politicians were quite telling. I mean if children are mocked because they’re good at school, you can see why female scientists especially who are successful, do not have a better standing. On the other hand, I mean, people suspect that they might not be good mothers or they might not be good people, so it’s not attractive socially from the society, it’s not really attractive to be a successful female scientist, so I sometimes think, why should I talk young women into being a scientist if they then end up being sort of disliked or not accepted by their contemporaries and so it’s a tricky business actually.

What drove you into science?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: I think a very big curiosity. I’m very curious and I like to understand things and not only science but also other things where I just try to find out why things work or how things work. Science and nature caught my attention as a small child already. I was growing up in a city but we had a garden and I loved the garden and then often on vacation I was at a farm and I loved these animals and plants and so on, so I was attracted very early on and then we had a very good teaching actually at my … I don’t know whether my teachers really had much of a role because I was determined very early, but then I also did music and I did languages and Literature and so on. I have broad interests actually other than science, but this is really true, this curiosity.

Yes, so I mean just to solve problems, to express yourself?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: To find out, yes I’m a curious reader too, yes I want to understand things, yes.

I would like to come back to that just now but I was thinking of, after the Nobel Prize, did life change in any way in the sense that you could take bigger risks in your scientific work or were allowed, so to speak, from the surroundings to?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Not really. I thought that getting the Nobel Prize was a big interruption in my career, I thought and it was very distracting. It takes a lot of time you know, it just takes time to be honoured, you have to travel and you have to give speeches of things you have, oh it’s so often that you get bored to tears when you hear your own voice. And it’s really taking a lot of your time and there’s no way that during this time you can start something new, I mean you just profit from what you’ve done and there is no time to develop new ideas.

I suffered a little bit during this time, I really thought that must end and I now stop a bit, you know shield myself a bit more from this type of redundancy because you have to have leisure to develop ideas, this is absolutely important and this is something I find people do not realise enough. Also scientists are very ambitious, they work and work and work and they go to the lab and they write this and they write that and they run from conference to conference and I sometimes wonder when they have time to have a new idea.

… creativity can only come on an empty mind …

I think sometimes they just work on old ideas and creativity can only come on an empty mind, but somehow there must be some wandering around: oh what could I do now and hey, let’s think about this or s. But if you’re always are occupied with travelling or with having to do something, so someone else tells you what to do, you are the programme, you can’t really develop original thoughts and so this is why I now sort of take my time. I take time off and I take long weekends and I stay home and I think and write and read and this is really quite fun.

… and sing, I believe?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: I sing yes sure and I garden, I have a large garden and I really recreate myself by doing gardening and thinking about something else so that when your mind gets free from all the burden of the daily troubles and then you can start putting something fresh in, you know.

So is that the link between science and art for you or culture?

… we had a wonderful education because my parents were so practical …

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes I mean, I have a strong likeness of culture and also I mean my grandmother was a painter and we do music in the family quite a lot and I think that’s very important. What was also important, I thought about that recently, also maybe as a follow-up of an interview but I was asked what my parents did and so on and looking at my brothers and sisters, we had a wonderful education because my parents were so practical, they did books themselves and we did a lot of handicrafts and I knew how to knit and sew and cook and we learnt a lot to do things ourselves, to make things ourselves so we all have some dexterity in doing things ourselves and this is also very important for Science, because you could quickly see how things would work and organise something, make it work, yes.

I was thinking about what you said of being able to get new ideas and thoughts and create something that has not been created before. You changed from the fruit fly to the zebra fish and I read in some of the articles that people were saying, yes that’s outrageous and you can’t do that and you know, are people very conservative and do you have to fight to be able to, you know, new challenges?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: If you look at the career paths of many scientists, they tend to start with something and just go on and on and on and on and on and they would not change topic because they always think there is something else to do, which is true, they follow a predetermined path. Whenever you have a problem there is another problem coming up, you can always go on and I changed dramatically after my thesis work when I went from bacterial transcription by chemistry to fruit flies. This was a wonderful challenge because it was all new and it really challenges you to think freshly about things. I think that was the most creative time of my life and it was great fun and I also experienced at that time that I, compared to other people working in this field, I came up with ideas. They were blocked in their minds to do this because they thought, oh this is not done, we don’t do that in our field and you can’t do that, and I said: Why not?

And then I did things which were completely unconventional and it helps changing fields because you can be unconventional for some time. Later on you are again bound in all this. This is how it’s done and you can’t really change very much. In the fish I think I didn’t really change that dramatically, I just changed the animal but not the question and changing the animal of course was a big challenge too and it was fun for me to develop the tools to do what we had done with flies, also with fish and it took a long time actually and we had some years without success.

We had success but without sort of products and publications and so on and you have to be able to afford that and I’m lucky I’m in this Max Planck society where this is essentially encouraged that you start something new, do some risky projects without having to fear that you lose your funding, so we can do that and one should do that and should encourage people to do that, but some think they can’t afford it because they might have a gap in their track record in the publications and then they won’t do it.

… and funding, yes.

… funding policy should be such that people can run risks …

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Yes. So, on the other hand you can also say that funding policy should be such that people can run risks and if they have done something. I think, when I started with fish I was pretty well known, I had been successful and people sort of entrusted, the Max Planck Society at least, they said okay, she’s done fine, she’s not stupid and why not support that and let her do something new and I think that’s perfectly okay, but maybe in the United States, I wouldn’t have gotten the funding because they immediately want you to, the next half year already to write another paper or show that you’ve done something when it’s not yet time.

What is the greatest challenge at the moment for you on a professional level?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: At the moment I have changed the way my lab is run and I think, more and more I just provide the atmosphere for young groups to do their own projects and I do the coordination. I listen to them and I help them and I challenge them with stupid questions or smart questions or with criticism or so. But it’s less and less my own ideas which are done and this is because I have a great interest now also in history of science and also in teaching, not teaching in schools, but I’m writing a book and I’m also on ethical councils and I’m thinking a lot about what people should know and develop in biology and in genetics and how to explain it to them and so on.

So I spend much of my time now writing this book, reading other books and trying to understand things or sort of make a synthesis from things which are not from other fields. I don’t know, actually in my field, I mean if you ask what my scientific goals would be which I probably will not follow up myself but sort of appointing people who would work on these topics is evolutionary biology actually, how organisms change, making this switch would lead to a change of the species and this is a very interesting topic and in my Institute there are other groups which do similar things and we try to look at some of the mechanisms now with this viewpoint and this is very interesting actually.

It is certainly because we still yet don’t know really.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: No, we don’t know and actually it’s true, I said that this morning, we know the fish, we know the worm, we know the fly, but we don’t know the links between and we don’t know, when we go back to the branches in evolution, we really don’t know what happened there when they branched and how they divert and what is the major drive for evolution.

The coelacanth fish is just one of those amazing examples that intrigues me.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Which?

The coelacanth, you know, I don’t know what it’s called in German, the fish with the legs which has always been one of the, yes.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Aha.

I would like to say thank you but I just want to say, you talked about encouraging German students, so you become a bridge builder, don’t you, in many ways, I would say?

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: I don’t know, I mean I can’t tell from my own viewpoint. Yes.

I can see you as a bridge builder between this and because I think it’s so easy to get into just one question, not to see the whole. Great, thank you very much for a very interesting talk. Thank you very much.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Okay, thank you.

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