Noah Whiteman is an evolutionary biology and genetics professor at UC-Berkeley. He also has affiliations with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, Center for Computational Biology, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Essig Museum of Entomology, and University and Jepson Herbaria. His laboratory focuses on understanding how and why plants and microbes use toxins and how animals overcome and even steal those toxins, as well as host-parasite interactions. He is also interested in understanding how biological toxins can be leveraged to prevent and treat human disease. He teaches the introductory Evolution course (IB 160) at Cal.
Over half of all of our modern medicines are natural products. The healing plants and fungi from which pure drugs have been isolated were first discovered by Indigenous peoples. The powers of these plants and fungi are communicated across the generations through oral tradition and materia medica. Curare, the first muscle relaxant used in general surgery, and cocaine, the first local anesthetic, were first discovered and used by Indigenous peoples. Wonder drugs, from aspirin (anti-inflammatory) to cephalosporins (antibiotics), and morphine (analgesic) to taxol (anti-cancer) evolved not for our benefit at all, but to protect plants and microbes from enemies as chemical defenses.
Through a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship, he is writing a book on the origins of biotoxins and their use and abuse by humans. Taking this approach provides a new lens through which to view both natural and human history as well as the biology of addiction.
In their research, they often use the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and its relatives as models on the animal side. They are also interested in the plant side of the equation and also use the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and other mustards as hosts. A smaller project focuses on interactions between hummingbirds and their nectar plants at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.
See their latest research on how they used CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing to understand how the monarch butterfly evolved to be resistant to milkweed toxins it stores in its body:
Goals/Interests as an educator: To teach and mentor creative, kind, passionate, and skeptical scientists. He has a deep interest in engagement with students, and the public, on evolutionary biology and science as a way of knowing. He often shares his failures and successes as a gay, first-generation college student who grew up in rural, northeastern Minnesota.
See his lab website: www.noahwhiteman.org for more details.