Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (born October 20, 1942 in Magdeburg) is a German biologist who won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1991 and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995, together with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis, for their research on the genetic control of embryonic development.
At the time of these experiments, molecular biology was mostly based on small-scale experiments that demonstrated principles or examples of possibly general significance. Experiments that demonstrated the activity of one gene, or the action of one protein, were the norm. On the other hand, surveys of large swaths of biological complexity were relatively rare, due to the enormous workload and funding required by the techniques used at the time.
Fruit flies have long been a workhorse of genetics due to their small size and quick generation time, which makes even large numbers of them relatively easy to control. The genes involved in embryonic development were identified by generating random mutations in fruit flies and breeding them. Whenever the development was impaired, changed or absent, the experimenters identified exactly which gene(s) had been affected by the mutation, thereby building up a set of genes crucial for Drosophila development. Many of these genes were given descriptive names like hedgehog, Gurken (German: "cucumbers"), and Krüppel ("cripple"). The subsequent study of these mutants and their interactions led to important new insights into early Drosophila development, especially the mechanisms that underlie the step-wise development of body segments.
These experiments are not only distinguished by their sheer scale (with the methods available at the time, they involved an enormous workload), but more importantly by their significance for organisms other than fruit flies. It was later found that many of the genes identified here had homologues in other species. In particular, the homeobox genes (coding for transcription factors critically involved in early body development) are found in all metazoans, and usually have similar roles in body segmentation.
These findings have also led to important realizations about evolution - for example, that protostomes and deuterostomes are likely to have had a relatively well-developed common ancestor with a much more complex body plan than had been conventionally thought.
Additionally, they greatly increased our understanding of the regulation of transcription, as well as cell fate during development.
In 1994 Nüsslein-Volhard started the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation (Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Stiftung). It is meant to aid promising young female German scientists with children. The foundation's main focus is to facilitate childcare as a supplement to existing stipends and day care.