Luminaries of research

February 21, 2013

They have scooped up almost every award there is for their research: Tübingen-based developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1995 and Axel Ullrich, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried near Munich. They have now been received into the "Hall of Fame" of German research, an honour conferred since 2009 by manager magazin on top scientists for their contribution to Germany as a research location.

They meet only rarely: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Axel Ullrich. The photo was taken during the hall-of-fame ceremony on December 17, 2012.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is the first – and only – woman in Germany to be awarded a Nobel prize. Now 70 and an enthusiastic singer, flautist and cook, she was 12 when she discovered her passion for biology in which, as she writes in her autobiography, she was supported by her musical and artistic parents and grandparents.

During her time studying in Frankfurt, Tübingen and Heidelberg, she encountered the two organisms that she would spend her life researching: inspiration struck the young researcher as she leafed through a book about developmental biology one night in the laboratory. It contained the description of a Drosophila-mutant which had four body segments rather than eight. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard hoped to find in the fly's egg the genetic basis responsible for the development of a fertilised cell into a complete insect.

From the fly to the zebrafish

In the course of her genetic studies, it became clear that it was possible to draw inferences about the embryonic development of other animals, and of humans, from the fly embryo. Together with her colleague Eric Wieschaus she localised hundreds of important development genes at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Together they published groundbreaking studies describing the genetic control of the development of the early embryo.

Later, Nüsslein-Volhard moved to her current model organism, the zebrafish, at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. This fish exhibits a combination of many properties which make it interesting as an object of research: it is small and it develops and reproduces very rapidly. Scientists can easily track genetic changes on its practically transparent larvae. Following her retirement this year, she wants to continue to her research into the genetic origin of the zebrafish's stripes.

Committed teacher and mentor

Throughout her career, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has always had to work at being accepted as a female scientist. When she became a scientific member of the Max Planck Society some 30 years ago, she was practically alone among numerous male colleagues on this level of hierarchy. In 2004 therefore, she set up the foundation named after her which the Max Planck Society endows with €30,000 annually. "Money is the most banal way of buying oneself time," says the Max Planck Director. "It makes no sense at all to have no cleaner, to wear oneself out with housework and at the same time manage a laboratory. One should have the courage to spend more money and create space for oneself." Young Ph.D. students know that and try to manage the inextricably entwined duties of career and family. When you accept an invitation to a conference and the readings in the laboratory are inconveniently not available until after the nursery closes, the finely balanced system of childcare, scientific work and housework quickly falls apart. The monthly grant of up to €400 from the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard-Stiftung for a maximum of three years during doctoral studies is intended to help here.

A driving force in cancer and diabetes research

As a researcher, Axel Ullrich thought constantly about the possible medical applications of his basic research. As early as the 1970s, he was considered one of the leading minds in international biotechnology. That was when he laid the foundation for a procedure with which it is possible to produce human insulin. Diabetics still benefit from it today. Two cancer drugs were also developed on the basis of his findings: Herceptin to combat breast cancer and Sutent against kidney and gastrointestinal tumours.

He worked for nine years at San Francisco-based Genentech, one of the first biotechnology companies in the world, before his return to Germany. As the Head of Department for Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute in Martinsried, he founded SUGEN, the first biotechnology company of the Max Planck Society and later U3 Pharma, which was bought five years ago by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo for around €150 million. His team holds more than 100 patents which are used as the basis for medicines. Four of the patents are currently in use.

The "Hall of Fame" of German research honours scientists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the development of Germany as a research location. It has twelve members, seven of whom are Max Planck scientists. They include Theodor Hänsch, Noble Laureate for Physics in 2005, Manfred Eigen, Noble Laureate for Chemistry in 1964, and Karl Ziegler, Director for many years of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim/Ruhr.


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