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One of the biggest questions in the field of developmental biology is how the cells in our bodies know their final destination. Well, by final destination I mean the organs that they become with respect to their function. But how does this entire process happen? This is where the work of Professor Christiane Volhard comes into the picture! 25 years ago, she discovered that there are genes in our chromosomes that basically help in the entire cell differentiation process.

Understanding the nature of cells

Nature has its own way of working and there is still so much we don’t know about it! Prof. Volhard’s initial work was on viruses where was studying the transcription processes involved. Soon she wanted to apply genetics principles to more than just viruses and this is when she began working on fruit flies. Drosophila melanogaster also commonly known as fruit flies, are a very well-known model organism. This is because they have many genes and biological processes similar to humans.

Drosophila melanogaster - Fruit flies
Drosophila melanogaster – Fruit flies (Source: nobelprize.org)

After studying them for over 7 years, she and her fellow laureate Prof. Eric Weischaus developed a new technique known as saturation mutagenesis. Here, they carried out targeted mutagenesis in specific genes to understand the effects in the next generation of flies. Flies are very easy and quick to breed so they could perform many experiments in a short time. This helped them identify over 20,000 genes in the chromosomes of fruit flies.

But this also helped them identify the most critical in the development process. Soon, they discovered 15 genes that directed the cells to form an embryo. These genes were responsible for determining the shape of the embryo. This was groundbreaking as this information was never discovered before. While we are aware of the fact that embryos form, but the question of how they do was never clear.

Impact of this discovery

While this research question was more rooted in the basic research domain, it had a huge impact on reproduction biology. This is because when we know the function of such genes, we can understand the basis of many congenital disorders. Maybe even develop solutions to these disorders! The possibilities are limitless. Eventually, she moved on to studying the same questions in zebrafish as they are a vertebrate model. This means that it would be easy to understand the implications in mammals.

Prof. Volhard with zebrafish models being bred for research
Prof. Volhard with zebrafish models being bred for research (Source: nobelprize.org)

Prof. Volhard has personally been a huge advocate for women in science and believes there are many barriers. Especially for women who want to have a family as well. This is true, and she has worked endlessly to ensure that women know that there is a place in science for them. That they should not be discouraged because of what is expected of them.

References

CHRISTIANE NรœSSLEIN-VOLHARD (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/christiane-nusslein-volhard

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