Noah Whiteman

Research Interests

Dr. Noah Whiteman's research aims to understand how interactions between species have shaped the evolution of life on Earth. We use tools and concepts from the fields of evolutionary biology, genomics, molecular biology, biochemistry, animal behavior, neuroscience and ecology in pursuit of this question. Dr. Whiteman was trained as an insect systematics (M.S., University of Missouri-Columbia), an evolutionary and ecological geneticist (Ph.D., University of Missouri-St. Louis) and then molecular biologist and genomicist (Postdoctoral, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital). Field work is an integral part of Dr. Whiteman's research program. Field sites have been in the Galapagos Islands, Argentina, Chile, Australia, old fields in Massachusetts and alpine meadows and forests in the Rocky Mountains. Dr. Whiteman's research group at the University of Arizona in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is currently focused on understanding if herbivory—feeding by animals on living plant tissues—is a key innovation in the history of life. On the one hand, herbivorous insect lineages account for one quarter of all named species. However, despite the success of herbivorous lineages, herbivory itself has evolved in less than 1/3 of living insect orders. This paradox—that explosive species radiations follow once a lineage successfully colonizes plants yet herbivory rarely, is an outstanding mystery. Identifying the genetic bases of adaptations facilitating the evolution of herbivory across herbivorous insect clades and the mechanisms facilitating the adaptive potential within herbivorous species form the basis of two of the main research projects in my laboratory. The other main project focuses on the role that leaf-dwelling bacteria play in influencing rates of herbivory. These projects were or are funded by the Templeton Foundation, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, University of Arizona Foundation and the Center for Insect Science. Because many of these projects focus on how insects detoxify or resist plant defensive compounds, such as digitoxin and mustard oils, there are natural intersections between our research and human medicine. This is particularly salient in the area of life span extension and anti-cancer benefits that some plant secondary compounds may confer, especially mustard oils. We encourage future collaborators, particularly biomedical scientists interested in these questions to contact us--we employ Drosophila melanogaster as an animal model in pursuit of these questions. Dr. Whiteman teaches the undergraduate course in Evolutionary Biology and a graduate course in Functional and Evolutionary Genomics.