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.