October 15, 2010
Instead of taking center stage as the prima ballerina she once wanted to be, Nicole Dubilier has become a star of the international science arena. The renowned scientist researches deep-sea bacteria and worms at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen.
Text: Klaus Wilhelm
What a laugh! Over and over again, Nicole Dubilier erupts into peals of deep, hearty, contagious, spirited, congenial and loud laughter. She simply can’t help it, it seems. Even if – or more precisely, when – she is talking about the things that mean the world to her: science, family and the ocean.
The joyful, downright exuberant biologist from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology adopts an equally upbeat tone when recounting tales about her excursions in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with the research ships Meteor, Sonne, and Maria S. Merian, when explaining symbiosis – that tightly knit “marriage of convenience” between various living organisms – or the new world of molecular biology that is gradually unveiling the secrets that lie behind the phenomenon of symbiosis, or when simply talking about bacteria and worms. Yes, worms! Spontaneity and candor come just as easily to this down-to-earth woman as laughter – and research. She likes stories and life in general – and her own life. All this is immediately obvious upon meeting her.
Nicole Dubilier is sitting in her modest office on the first floor of her institute in Bremen. Pinned to the notice board is a card with birthday greetings from the crew of the Maria S. Merian, and a humorous “baptismal certificate” for crossing the equator on the high seas from the crew of the Meteor. The sparse office contains just a few desks and shelves lined with specialist books and publications. The window overlooks the institute garden and pond, and Bremen’s Bürgerpark forest is visible in the distance – it is easy to see how the view could provide a source of inspiration. “Nicole von Wurm,” as the ironic, yet highly symbolic nameplate on her office door reads, has been leading the now twelve-strong “Symbiosis” Research Group from this office since 2007.
The livewire from the coast – Nicole Dubilier has been living in Hamburg since the 1970s – has had a formative influence on this research field over the past decade. She was responsible for the discovery of a new form of symbiosis: a symbiotic menage à trois between a worm and two bacteria, from which, contrary to previous belief, all of the partners benefit. The discovery merited a letter in the prestigious journal Nature – the equivalent of a knighthood in the world of scientific research. “I was extremely proud at the time.” She laughs.
It was a worm from the Mediterranean shores of the island of Elba that “suddenly changed my scientific life,” recounts Dubilier. Nothing in her early years had suggested that this was how things would turn out: she had not dissected earthworms as a child to watch how they regenerated themselves, nor did she develop any great passion for the species in the early stages of her biology studies. On the contrary: like all second-semester biology students, she had to dissect an earthworm and study its anatomy, and read the notorious sentence in “Kükenthal,” the seminal German textbook on practical zoology, to the effect that: “The variety of the structures, their organization and order, and the way the colors of the tissues are coordinated will inspire all but the very dullest among us.” Dubilier laughs: “If that’s the case, I must have been very dull indeed.”