2017 George Streisinger Award - Christiane C. Nuesslein-Volhard

The recipient of the Streisinger Award 2017 was announced earlier this year at the International European Zebrafish Meeting in Budapest. The Streisinger Award was created by the International Zebrafish Society (IZFS). It recognizes the contributions of a senior investigator who has made outstanding and continued contributions to the the zebrafish field through conceptual advances that have opened important new research directions, or tools or resources that have been transformative in enabling new research possibilities. After an open call for nominations earlier this year, Janni Nüsslein-Volhard was selected as the 2017 recipient of the Streisinger Award.

True to the spirit of George Streisinger, Janni has been a decisive leader of the zebrafish field. Without her ground breaking, igniting contribution and constant engagement, the field would probably not have developed into what it is today.  Key contributions by Janni to the zebrafish field are many.


The first systematic zebrafish screens in Tübingen and Boston could be called, with some justification, the 'Manhattan Project' for the zebrafish field, and to some extent vertebrate developmental biology and genetics. As early as 1984, Janni began to plan the systematic screen that then started in 1992 after a special fish house was built for the purpose. When I visited her as an undergraduate in the summer of 1985, she not only explained to me her plans to conduct a systematic genetic screen for zebrafish mutants, she also showed me the first tank of zebrafish in her office, making this an eye opening experience for me. Janni was at that time at the pinnacle of her success in the Drosophila field - the zygotic fly screens had just been published, while some key contributions to flies, like the maternal effect screens, the genetics of a-p and d-v axis formation, and the work on the Bicoid gradient in Drosophila were yet to come. Nevertheless, she already had the foresight to plan the enormous endeavor of the zebrafish screen, enabled by her new-found resources as a Max Planck director.


Janni‘s transition into fish sparked an enormous interest not only among scientists, but also in mainstream media like the NY Times and the New Yorker. The enormity of the task was daunting for her, and for all that joined her, but Janni‘s commitment to the project was singular and unwavering – even in the face of occasional doubts that she, like all of us, had during the screen. This screen, and the results published in the 'Zebrafish issue' of Development in 1996 (Fig. 2), has put the zebrafish on the map of the wider scientific community.


The issue published 37 papers, including 22 papers from Janni‘s group, containing the description of the isolation and phenotypes of about 1500 mutations in more than 400 new genes, affecting many aspects and stages of zebrafish biology.


At the same time, Janni‘s eminent standing in the field of Developmental Biology ensured that results from the screen were closely followed by people outside of the zebrafish community - sometimes even with some trepidation - which was important to ensure that this growth phase of the zebrafish field, and the next one where the mutants where analyzed in detail, received the necessary interest and inflow of financial support, jobs, and researchers from the scientific community.


Based on her experience with the fly screens, Janni realized from the beginning how important it was going to be to achieve not only a collection of many new mutants, but also to do two additional steps with them: i. to describe them to the point where the field would recognize their utility, and ii. to make all mutants available quickly to the field - sometimes by inviting expert investigators to visit prior to publication, during the mutant characterization phase. Her hospitality in Tübingen (including many cooked meals at her home... she even published the recipes in a cook book!) and the publication of all the mutants in the Development issue 1996 achieved this, and was a science-political masterpiece in itself because all the papers where actually properly reviewed, and made it into the issue. (In fact, all but one - ironically, the one on adult pigmentation had to be published elsewhere, and this is what she has continued to work on with great success).


Janni‘s efforts for the zebrafish field did not start or stop with the screens. Janni was a decisive and positive supporter in the early 1980s in the committee appointed by the NIH that was asked to evaluate whether the Eugene investigators might be allowed to continue the NIH funded work of George Streisinger after his untimely death. Other members of that committee were Jose Campos-Ortega (Cologne) and Yuh-Nung Jan (San Francisco). Through the support of this committee, Chuck Kimmel, Monte Westerfield, Judith Eisen, John Postlethwait and others were enabled to continue the work initiated by George in Eugene. This was a seminal event for the whole field, of course. It also secured the support for Eugene by some of the most eminent geneticists and developmental biologists of the time.


After the screens, through her continuous leadership and support, funding streams like the 'Zf models' EU network that she led, the subsequent 'Zf Health' EU network, and also the zebrafish mapping and genome sequencing efforts, and indirectly many PI jobs, were enabled or supported by her. Critical to the growth of the field, she also very generously let everyone take the mutants they were interested in, keeping little for herself, and started the work on the adult pigment mutants as an almost independent new effort. A very readable account of her view of the history of the Tübingen Screen was published by Development on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the relaunch of Development from the Journal of Embryology and Eperimental Morphology (C. Nüsslein-Volhard (2012), The zebrafish issue of Development. Development. 139: 4099-4103).


There are probably not many scientific prizes that one can decently give to a person who has already received the Nobel prize. For Janni, who has contributed so much to the development of the zebrafish field, I believe the Streisinger Award is surely one of them, and it also serves as a 'thank you' from the zebrafish community. Congratulations to Janni on receiving the 2017 Streisinger Award !! *


* The award will be officially handed over at the Zf Principal Investigators Meeting in Trento, Italy, in March 2018 (for more info on this meeting, see http://events.unitn.it/en/ezpm2018).


Contributed by

Prof. Michael Brand

Center for Regenerative Therapies, CRTD

TU Dresden, Germany


Short Biography of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard:

  • Studies of Biology, Physics and Chemistry at U of Frankfurt
  • Phd 1973 Biochemistry at U of Tubingen
  • 1975-1976 Postdoc Biozentrum Basel, Start of Drosophila Embryology and Genetics work
  • 1977 DFG fellow at U of Freiburg, with Klaus Sander
  • 1978-1980 Groupleader at the EMBL in Heidelberg, shared a lab with Eric Wieschaus, start of the famous Drosophila screens
  • 1981 Tübingen / Miescher Lab of the Max Planck Society
  • 1985 Director at MPI for Developmental Biology, Tubingen
  • 1984: first Zebrafish, plans for Zf screen
  • 1992 - 1996 Large scale Zebrafish screen (-> 'Zebrafish issue' of Development, 1996)
  • 1995 Nobel prize for Physiology / Medicine, together with Eric Wieschaus (Princeton) and Ed Lewis (Caltech).