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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Nobel Laureates: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1995.
"for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development"

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1942 - ) and Eric F. Wieschaus (1947 - ) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contribution to understanding the genetics of development in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

Their main contribution was to identify a number of genes that controlled the development of the embryo. The approach was to create mutations at random then screen large numbers of flies for recessive lethals affecting various stages of early embryogenesis. The initial large scale experiment was carried out at the EMBL Labs in Heidleberg, Germany. They established 27,000 lines containing mutated chromosomes and characterized 139 mutations affecting embryogenesis. Of these, 15 were described in the classic 1980 Nature paper. (See Silver Screen, a tribute to the paper on it's 25th anniversary.)

The original 15 genes were: cubitus interruptus, wingless, gooseberry, hedgehog, fused, patch, paired, even-skipped, odd-skipped, barrel, runt, engrailed, Kruppel, knirps, and hunchback. To anyone familiar with the field this reads like a who's who of Drosophila development. Dozens (hundreds?) of papers have been published on each of these genes.

The experimental approach is described in the Press Release below. I am only including the part that refers to Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus. They shared the prize with Edward Lewis.

Nobel Laureates
Brave decision by two young scientists

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus both finished their basic scientific training at the end of the seventies. They were offered their first independent research positions at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. They knew each other before they arrived in Heidelberg because of their common interest: they both wanted to find out how the newly fertilized Drosophila egg developed into a segmented embryo. The reason they chose the fruit fly is that embryonic development is very fast. Within 9 days from fertilization the egg develops into an embryo, then a larvae and then into a complete fly.

Fig. 1 Regions of activity in the embryo for the genes belonging to the gap, pair-rule, and segment-polarity groups. The gap genes start to act in the very early embryo (A) to specify an initial segmentation (B). The pair-rule genes specify the 14 final segments (C) of the embryo under the influence of the gap genes. These segments later acquire a head-to-tail polarity due to the segment polarity genes.

They decided to join forces to identify the genes which control the early phase of this process. It was a brave decision by two young scientists at the beginning of their scientific careers. Nobody before had done anything similar and the chances of success were very uncertain. For one, the number of genes involved might be very great. But they got started. Their experimental strategy was unique and well planned. They treated flies with mutagenic substances so as to damage (mutate) approximately half of the Drosophila genes at random (saturation mutagenesis). They then studied genes which, if mutated would cause disturbances in the formation of a body axis or in the segmentation pattern. Using a microscope where two persons could simultaneously examine the same embryo they analyzed and classified a large number of malformations caused by mutations in genes controlling early embryonic development. For more than a year the two scientists sat opposite each other examining Drosophila embryos resulting from genetic crosses of mutant Drosophila strains. They were able to identify 15 different genes which, if mutated, would cause defects in segmentation. The genes could be classified with respect to the order in which they were important during development and how mutations affected segmentation. Gap genes (Fig 1) control the body plan along the head-tail axis. Loss of gap gene function results in a reduced number of body segments. Pair rule genes affect every second body segment: loss of a gene known as "even-skipped" results in an embryo consisting only of odd numbered segments. A third class of genes called segment polarity genes affect the head-to-tail polarity of individual segments.

The results of Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus were first published in the English scientific journal Nature during the fall of 1980. They received a lot of attention among developmental biologists and for several reasons. The strategy used by the two young scientists was novel. It established that genes controlling development could be systematically identified. The number of genes involved was limited and they could be classified into specific functional groups. This encouraged a number of other scientists to look for developmental genes in other species. In a fairly short time it was possible to show that similar or identical genes existed also in higher organisms and in man. It has also been demonstrated that they perform similar functions during development.

[Photo Credits: Nüsslein-Volhard - Encylopaedia Britanica, © Patrick Piel/Gamma Liaison, Wieschaus -News at Princeton]

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