Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's research focuses on questions of evolutionary biology, especially on forms and shapes during the development of animals. Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as an example, for the first time, she discovered around 120 genes that play a controlling role in shape formation. The identification and description of these genes has made a major contribution to understanding the mechanisms of pattern formation during embryonic development: in modified form, many of these genes also play central roles in vertebrates and in the development of cancer.
As Max Planck Research Group Leader at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory in Tübingen, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard discovered further molecular factors that are responsible for the development of embryonic axes and initial divisions in the ovum. For the first time, she documented the existence of gradients of shape-forming substances which, depending on their concentration, activate certain genes and thus coordinate the formation of shape during the developmental phase.
Since the early 1990s, the majority of her research group has focused on the development and genetics of the zebrafish Danio rerio. Their systematic genetic studies have contributed significantly to establishing this fish as a model organism in vertebrate genetics. More recently, her research has also focused on processes of cell migration during organ development and with the development of the skin and its specializations. Other projects include genetic control of the development of adult fish structures such as colour patterns, scales and fins. A central objective is to find genes that play a role in the variation of forms during evolution.
In addition, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has been involved in the promotion of female scientists for many years. The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation for Women in Science, which she established in 2004 and in which she is still active as chairwoman, supports talented young female scientists with children in order to give them the freedom they need for a scientific career.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has received numerous awards, honorary doctorates and prizes for her work, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (1986), the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1991) and the Nobel Prize for Medicine (1995).
She is a member of the Royal Society (England), the National Academy (USA), the Order Pour Le Mérite (Germany), the Leopoldina (Germany), the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie (Germany), the Kurie der Wissenschaft (Austria) and the Académie des Sciences (France). From 2001 to 2006 she was a member of the National Ethics Council of the Federal Government.
She was President of the Society of German Natural Scientists and Physicians (2008) and Secretary General of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) (from 2003 to 2009). From 2005 to 2011 she was a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC) of the European Union, and since 2013 she has been Chancellor of the Order Pour Le Mérite.