On 9 May 2024, Professor Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard delivered the third lecture in our Bath Nobel Laureate Lecture Series. A geneticist who studies the mechanisms of animal development, the Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology is the first and only German woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

In these days when genetics pervades our understanding of human biology and disease, it is easy to forget that just 50 years ago, little was known about the genes that control the development of humans, or indeed of any organism. Around this time, Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard decided to address this massive knowledge gap in biology by screening for mutations affecting the development of the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. Alongside her colleague, Eric Wieschaus, with whom she would subsequently share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, she accomplished the amazing feat of identifying all the genes required for embryogenesis in Drosophila.

The analyses of these genes and their interactions that she and many other researchers worldwide undertook over the following years have provided major new insights, not only into the biology of Drosophila but also of all other animals, including humans. Her discoveries led, for example, to the unveiling of the Toll-like receptor (TLR) family, which has revolutionised our understanding of innate immunity in humans, as well as explaining certain signalling pathways that play major roles both in normal human development and in cancers.

Not content with using forward genetic analysis to understand Drosophila development, in the mid-1980s, Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard embarked on a similar approach to analyse vertebrate development; this time using the tropical zebrafish as a model organism. The large-scale screens undertaken in her laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen, provided a wealth of mutations that have fuelled the emergence of an entirely new research community around the world.

In recent years, Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard’s own interests have come to focus on biological beauty, in particular the function and evolution of the colour patterns that are prominent features of most animals, and especially of fish.

In her lecture on 'Animal Beauty: Function and Evolution of Biological Aesthetics', she discussed her studies of zebrafish pigmentation mutants and the insights these provide into the genetic and developmental basis of colour pattern evolution in vertebrates. She also described how recent exciting technical developments, especially the novel possibilities of genome editing offered by the CRISPR/Cas9 system, allow the translation of findings from model organisms into other species by targeted gene knockouts and allele replacements.

As well as being a brilliant scientist, Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard is also a staunch advocate of equality for women in science, and in 2004, established the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Stiftung (Foundation) enabling young female German scientists to pursue their research after becoming mothers by providing financial support for childcare.

Professor Philip Ingham, Head of the Department of Life Sciences said: "It was an honour and privilege for the university to host such a distinguished and inspiring scientist and an enriching experience for all those lucky enough to attend her lecture and meet her informally afterwards."