Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard ForMemRS

Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard ForMemRS, Director Emeritus, Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology, Tübingen

Presentation title:         

How fish colour their skin: A paradigm for development and evolution of adult patterns


Pigment cells in zebrafish – melanophores, iridophores and xanthophores – originate from neural crest-derived stem cells associated with the dorsal root ganglia of the peripheral nervous system.

Clonal analysis indicates that these progenitors remain multipotent and plastic beyond embryogenesis well into metamorphosis, when the adult colour pattern develops. Pigment cells share a lineage with neuronal cells of the peripheral nervous system; progenitors propagate along the spinal nerves.

The proliferation of pigment cells is regulated by competitive interactions among cells of the same type. An even spacing involves collective migration and contact inhibition of locomotion of the three cell types distributed in superimposed monolayers in the skin.

This mode of colouring the skin is probably common to fish, whereas different patterns emerge by species specific cell interactions among the different pigment cell types. These interactions are mediated by channels involved in direct cell contact between the pigment cells, as well as unknown cues provided by the tissue environment.


From 1985 until 2014 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was a director at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology at Tübingen. As Emeriti she is still leading a research group at the Institute focusing on pattern formation, growth and cell migration in the zebrafish, a new vertebrate model organism.

For the discovery of genes that control development in animals and humans, and the demonstration of morphogen gradients in the fly embryo she received a number of awards and honours, among others the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (New York/USA) and in 1995 the Nobel Price for Medicine or Physiology together with Eric Wieschaus and Edward Lewis.

She was secretary general of the EMBO until 2009 and a member of many scientific councils (GDNÄ, National Ethics Council of Germany, ECR). Since 2013 she is chancellor of the Order Pour le merite.

In order to support women with children in science she founded the Christiane-Nüsslein-Volhard-Stiftung in 2004.

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