Noah Whiteman, Ph.D.

Noah Whiteman

Title
Associate Professor
Department
Dept of Integrative Biology
Phone
(510) 664-7545
Research Expertise and Interest
adaptation, evolutionary biology, genomics, genetics, toxicology, insect biology, plant biology, microbiology, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing
Research Description

Noah Whiteman's research group studies the molecular basis of adaptations arising from the ancient arms race between toxic plants and the animals and microbes that attack them. Their focus is on understanding the molecular bases (genetic, biochemical, physiological) of plant-insect chemical co-evolution, and specifically, how plant toxins are sensed and metabolized by animals. Most recently, they focused on plants that produce heart poisons that bind to the sodium potassium pump of animals. They used CRISPR-Cas-9 genome editing in Drosophila melanogaster to retrace the adaptive walk taken by monarch butterflies and their relatives as they colonized toxic milkweed plants. This allowed them to study how a series of adaptive mutations resulted in resistance to heart poisons in whole animal 'monarch flies' and revealed a biochemical mechanism for resistance. 

Another major research strand focuses on plants that produce mustard oils (like horseradish and wasabi) and the insects and bacteria that have colonized these plants. To better study these interactions, they have been developing genomic tools for an herbivorous relative of the fruit fly that eats only mustard leaves. These compounds are biomedically important because they result in neuroprotection against some degenerative diseases in animal models, including Parkinson's disease. The molecular mechanisms underlying sensation and metabolism of these compounds is therefore of general interest.

Finally, they study the evolution of specialization in herbivorous insects, using tools from both Arabidopsis and Drosophila to understand how fine-grained spatial variation in host plant chemistry across the landscape affects the evolution of host breadth in herbivores, using the mustard flies and their mustard hosts as models.

To pursue this research, they are supported by an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

In the News

October 2, 2019

CRISPRed flies mimic monarch butterfly — and could make you vomit

The fruit flies in Noah Whiteman’s lab may be hazardous to your health. Whiteman and his University of California, Berkeley, colleagues have turned perfectly palatable fruit flies — palatable, at least, to frogs and birds — into potentially poisonous prey that may cause anything that eats them to puke. In large enough quantities, the flies likely would make a human puke, too, much like the emetic effect of ipecac syrup.

In the News

October 2, 2019

CRISPRed flies mimic monarch butterfly — and could make you vomit

The fruit flies in Noah Whiteman’s lab may be hazardous to your health. Whiteman and his University of California, Berkeley, colleagues have turned perfectly palatable fruit flies — palatable, at least, to frogs and birds — into potentially poisonous prey that may cause anything that eats them to puke. In large enough quantities, the flies likely would make a human puke, too, much like the emetic effect of ipecac syrup.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
October 3, 2019
Emily Makowski
The Scientist's 'Image of the Day' pictures a fruit fly walking on a Monarch Butterfly's wing to represent a landmark study conducted at Berkeley. The researchers, led by associate integrative biology professor Noah Whiteman, used CRISPR gene-editing technology to re-create evolutionary mutations that could help a creature adapt to the environment. They accomplished this by engineering fruit flies that can safely consume toxic milkweed and protect it from predation by making it toxic to would-be predators, just as the Monarch butterfly evolved. "All we did was change three sites, and we made these superflies," Professor Whiteman says. "But to me, the most amazing thing is that we were able to test evolutionary hypotheses in a way that has never been possible outside of cell lines." For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have appeared in dozens of sources, including Scientific American.
October 2, 2019
Ben Guarino
In a landmark use of CRISPR gene-editing technology to re-create evolutionary mutations that could help a creature adapt to the environment, a team of researchers led by associate integrative biology professor Noah Whiteman has engineered fruit flies that can safely consume toxic milkweed and protect it from predation by making it toxic to would-be predators, just as the Monarch butterfly evolved. "All we did was change three sites, and we made these superflies," Professor Whiteman says. "But to me, the most amazing thing is that we were able to test evolutionary hypotheses in a way that has never been possible outside of cell lines. ... It would have been difficult to discover this without having the ability to create mutations with CRISPR." For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Other stories on this topic have appeared in the New York Times, Science, and Daily Mail Online.
FullStory (*requires registration)

Loading Class list ...
.