Research Expertise and Interest
adaptation, evolutionary biology, genomics, genetics, toxicology, insect biology, plant biology, microbiology, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing
Noah Whiteman is Professor of Genetics, Genomics, Evolution and Development and Director of the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC-Berkeley. He also has affiliations with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, Center for Computational Biology, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and University and Jepson Herbaria. His laboratory focuses on understanding how and why plants, microbes, and even some animals use toxins in offense and defense, and how some organisms overcome and even steal those toxins, from the monarch butterfly, to us. 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 C160 and MCB C144) at Cal, a class of around 160 undergraduate and graduate students. Whiteman is co-Director of a large predoctoral training grant from the NIH called "Genetics Dissection of Cells and Organisms" that provides training to 14 Ph.D. students in genetics from three departments.
Whiteman conducted his dissertation research in the Galapagos Islands on co-evolution between birds and their parasites. He then completed an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard where he began to use plants as model hosts that were attacked by diverse parasites. At UC Berkeley, his laboratory has focused on how plants have evolved to produce diverse toxins as defensive shields and how insects have evolved in response to resist and even sequester them. He uses genomics and genome editing as a tool to ascertain which genetic changes are responsible for these co-evolved traits. Often, his laboratory relies on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and its relatives (e.g., Scaptomyza flava) 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 of the insects. A new project focuses on the role of toxin genes captured by bacteria have been integrated into the fruit fly's innate immune system to protect it from wasps. 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 diverse insects overcome terpenoid toxins in plants as each lineage co-evolved across the last 400 million years, how insects borrowed bacterial toxin genes to resist parasitoid wasps, and now the monarch butterfly evolved to be resistant to milkweed toxins it stores in its body:
- Nature Ecology & Evolution article about terpenoids
- Elizabeth Pennisi's story about the terpenoid research in Science
- PNAS article about insects borrowing bacterial toxins
- Nature monarch article
- Carl Zimmer’s story about the research in the NYT
- Noah Whiteman's blog
Over half of all of our modern medicines are natural products. The healing plants, fungi, and even some animals from which pure drugs have been isolated were often first discovered by Indigenous peoples. The powers of these materials 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 has written a book to be published on October 24, 2023 on the origin of nature's toxins, how animals and humans overcome them, and how they have changed the world: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/noah-whiteman/most-delicious-poison/9780316386579/. His book provides a new lens through which to view both natural and human history as well as the biology of addiction.
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.