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University of Basel

15 January 2018

Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard at the Biozentrum

Prof. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. (Image: momentum-photo.com/MPI)
Prof. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. (Image: momentum-photo.com/MPI)

How does the zebrafish get its stripes? Why does it change from species to species? Which cells are responsible for the variety and beauty of the pattern? These are questions that Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel laureate in Medicine or Physiology, is exploring in depth in her research. In the coming “Biozentrum Lecture”, that will take place on 24 January 2018, she will address the puzzles surrounding the formation of the typical “zebra” pattern.

The kick off for this year’s “Biozentrum Lectures” series will be presented by the distinguished developmental biologist and Nobel laureate Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. In her presentation she will address an evolutionary biological phenomenon: How zebrafish get their stripes. 

During the last years, Nüsslein-Volhard has focused on work with zebrafish. In evolution, the adult color pattern plays a major role in these organisms. Even in closely related species, the phenotypes can vary greatly. In zebrafish there are three types of pigment cells: black, reflective silver and yellow. They originate from neural stem cells and during development become arranged to form a multi-layered zebra pattern in the skin of the developing zebrafish. This gives the species a specific color pattern.

Current investigations suggest that the pigment progenitor cells remain multi-potent beyond embryogenesis to metamorphosis, when the color pattern of the mature fish emerges. The arrangement of the three pigment cell types in the skin comes about in various ways and is controlled by interactions between cells of the same type. Depending on which pigment cell types they come into contact with, the cells can change their form and color. This causes a series of light and dark areas – the typical striped pattern of the zebrafish. This principle underlying skin coloring is presumably the same in all fish, although the interactions between the pigment cells are species specific.

Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard has been conducting research at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, since 1985. She studied biochemistry and earned her doctorate at the University of Tübingen. In 1975, she started her research into the development of Drosophila, initially as a postdoc at the Biozentrum and subsequently at the University of Freiburg. From 1978 to 1981, Nüsslein-Volhard headed a research group, together with Eric Wieschaus, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. It was here that she discovered genes which controlled the development of Drosophila embryos. Her pioneering work was recognized with numerous prestigious awards, including the greatest scientific honor: The Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1995. In 2004, she founded the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation to support talented young female scientists.


How fish colour their skin: A paradigm for development and evolution of adult patterns. Biozentrum Lecture by Prof. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Wednesday, 24 Januar, 2018, 5:15 pm, lecture hall 1 at the Pharmazentrum, Klingelbergstrasse 50, Basel. All interested persons are welcome to attend. Add event to calendar.

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