L&S Author Interview: Noah Whiteman & "Most Delicious Poison"

October 17, 2023

Noah Whiteman, professor of genetics, genomics, evolution and development and director of the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley, speaks about his new book, Most Delicious Poison: The Story of Nature's Toxins--From Spices to Vices.

In this interview, Noah Whiteman shares his experience writing Most Delicious Poison, which focuses on the chemicals that plants, fungi, and small animals make to defend themselves from attack. He simultaneously explores how these intricate mechanisms found in nature have found their way into the human experience and our consumption patterns. As he puts it, "Many of the drugs we use and abuse are chemicals that arose through this war of nature. Although we couldn’t live as well or as long as we do without drugs derived from or inspired by natural toxins." Furthermore, Noah reminisces on what led him to pursue a career in biology, how being awarded the Guggenheim fellowship aided his work, and communicates the key messages he aims to convey to his readers. To learn more about Noah Whiteman and his new publication, visit his website here.

The last 500 years of human history can be viewed through a new lens—our pursuit of nature’s toxins.
Noah Whiteman, Professor and Author

What inspired you to write Most Delicious Poison?

The particular motivator that pushed me to want to write the book and that crystallized how I would tell the story happened quite suddenly, in late 2017, early 2018. Then, two parts of my life that I’d tried so hard to keep apart came crashing together—my decade-and-a-half-long study of how some animals overcome and even use toxins produced by other organisms to survive, and how my father did the same, which eventually killed him. 

I started as an Associate Professor in Integrative Biology at Berkeley in 2016, establishing my new research laboratory. We had been working for several years on a study that aimed to illuminate how the monarch butterfly resists the heart poisons it sequesters from its milkweed host plants at the caterpillar stage. By late 2017, my collaborators and I were able to use CRISPR genome editing to begin to isolate the individual genetic changes that allowed them to gain this superpower—a toxic chemical shield they use against hungry birds. At that exact moment, just when things started to begin to work, my father suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. 

It was a strange time for me given that things were going so well in my lab, but years of alcohol use disorder had finally done my father in. Here I was in an NIH-funded lab at the most prestigious public university in the U.S., maybe the world, and my father had been slowly killing himself in fifth-wheel trailer in west Texas in a self-imposed exile. 

I was struck by the fact that he died from an addiction to ethanol, which is a toxin and energy source made by brewer’s yeast from sugar. The ability to resist high levels of ethanol that would normally kill other microbes seems to have afforded the yeast the ability to keep competitor microbes at bay while also allowing them to store energy for later, which I think of as a toxic larder or a poisonous private reserve. Since my laboratory studies how animals use dietary toxins as adaptations, I began to see perhaps why I’d chosen that as a research focus. 

As a way to process his death, I instead dove back into my research, particularly the monarch butterfly research, with nearly all of the members of my laboratory. We published our discoveries in 2019 and it was both a relief and incredibly gratifying to use genome editing to retrace the evolutionary steps taken by the monarch butterfly to resist the heart poisons in its body. As that marathon of a project ended, I began grappling with the feelings that had been suppressed about his death and his lifelong battle with alcohol use disorder. 

So, once I had the space for it, the idea for the book emerged organically as a way to reconcile his death from dietary toxins with my own research career that studied animal consumption of dietary toxins. I applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship to write a book on the story of nature’s toxins. To my complete surprise and delight, I was awarded one of those fellowships in spring 2020 (the same year that my MCB colleague here, Jennifer Doudna, won one as well!). I then applied for a sabbatical and wrote the book during the 2021-2022 academic year.

I had never won any kind of fellowship like that before, so it meant a lot. I liked that it was one you had to apply to, not be nominated for by somebody, because it meant to me it was more about what I was proposing to do and about me, rather than which connections I had. As a working-class kid with no familial connections to the academy or science, I’m sensitive to what I perceive as the pernicious effects of elitism in our society. 

I had never won any kind of fellowship like that before (Guggenheim), so it meant a lot. I liked that it was one you had to apply to, not be nominated for by somebody, because it meant to me it was more about what I was proposing to do and about me, rather than which connections I had.
Noah Whiteman, Professor and Author

What message(s) do you wish to convey to readers?

There are three elements that I hope to convey:  

First, the chemical defenses produced by plants, fungi, microbes, and even some animals that we use and abuse, did not appear on the planet with us in mind at all. In most cases the organisms that make them evolved the ability to do so as adaptations—as chemical attractants or weapons. Yet, many of these chemicals work in our brains and bodies too, just like those of animals that attack the organisms making the toxins. This is because we share a common ancestor with those animals. Yet, we are larger than many of the targeted animals like caterpillars and our bodies can handle the levels produced by many plants, for example. So, what is lethal to a caterpillar might just make us jittery in the case of caffeine, for example. 

The second piece is that almost half of the drugs we rely on in modern medicine come from nature’s pharmacopeia—in other words they were weapons forged in the Darwinian “war of nature.” But Indigenous knowledge holders were already using many of these chemicals in their lives in food and drink, as medicinals, in spiritual practice as entheogens, or recreationally. Interestingly, one hypothesis put forth by some botanists and anthropologists is that many of the plants producing chemicals that are psychoactive that we use were probably used first as anti-parasitic medicinals and then later became co-opted as mood-changing substances or spiritual tools. Remarkably, even some animals self-medicate, from wooly bear caterpillars to orangutans, so we aren’t alone in our ability to leverage nature’s toxins. Yet, we walk a knife’s edge when we use some of these chemicals, because they can cause use disorders, particularly in those who are more vulnerable owing to difficulties in early life.

The third part is that the last 500 years of human history can be viewed through a new lens—our pursuit of nature’s toxins. The ruthless European pursuit of Asian spices containing these chemicals, dependence on caffeine in Europe in the form of tea from China, the smuggling of opium into China by the British and subsequent Opium War, the role of quinine in turning the tide of the Pacific Theater in World War II, and the advent of modern surgical anesthesia from curare, all flow directly from our quest for nature’s toxins. In some ways we don’t seem that different from the animals I study that acquire toxins from other organisms in order to make it through their lives. 

Almost half of the drugs we rely on in modern medicine come from nature’s pharmacopeia—in other words, they were weapons forged in the Darwinian 'war of nature.'
Noah Whiteman, Professor and Author

You've said, "I am a biologist because I am a naturalist." Can you say more about that? 

Well, from when I was 3 to about 10 years old, I grew up along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, at the southern edge of the boreal forest. We then moved to a more remote location north called the Sax-Zim Bog. This was a magical place in which to be a child in some ways. Timberwolves howled while the northern lights danced in the sky, the seasons were almost as dramatic as Alaska’s, and I found solace in its remoteness as a closeted gay teenager. Despite the natural wonders, it was difficult to live there socially, given my own identity and the paucity of opportunities, academically and otherwise.

After high school, my first job was as a naturalist at a resort even farther north, at an entry point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I was 17 years old and got the job because of my skills, which I took for granted and didn’t understand were quite unusual. So, I interacted with guests from all over the world who wanted to see moose, beaver dams, hear wolves howl, and see common loon babies riding around on the backs of their mothers. However, I was not from an academic family—neither parent graduated from college, and although they encouraged me and helped get me there and through it, they didn’t know that it would be possible to be an academic scientist like I am now. Moreover, my K-12 school had fewer than 200 people in it, and I graduated with 15 students. So, the options discussed both at home, in my extended family, and at school were that somebody like me with interests in nature could be a game warden, veterinarian, or physician. 

I started college thinking I might be a physician, but it never stuck, and I cast about. That is until I took an entomology course from Professor Jim Poff, and I was completely flabbergasted at what I learned: that honeybees could use a dance language to communicate to their sisters exactly where a patch of flowers miles away from their hive using a time-compensated sun compass translated into a waggle dance done in the darkness of the hive on a vertically-oriented honeycomb made from wax that fell from glands on the undersides of their abdomens like dandruff! It changed my life—I was never the same after that course and I knew that I had to learn more.

My friend, who had been in the honor’s program all along, said I should do an honor’s thesis. I had no idea what that was. But Jim let me do one on social wasps, and the die was cast—I pursued a career in biology because of my deep love for the most diverse organisms in nature, insects. I then studied birds in the Galapagos Islands (and the insects that attack them as parasites), and then plants (and the insects that eat them), and even bacteria (and the insects that move them between plants—you get the idea!), which I also find fascinating and equally worthy of study. So, in a nutshell, it is clear my time ensconced in nature as a child and young adult led to a passion for understanding the natural world and, specifically, how evolution led to all of the biodiversity around me.  

It is clear my time ensconced in nature as a child and young adult led to a passion for understanding the natural world and, specifically, how evolution led to all of the biodiversity around me.
Noah Whiteman, Professor and Author

What led you to pursue a career in biology and/or your focus on biological toxins?

My Ph.D. had focused on host-parasite interactions focused on the Galapagos hawk and its parasites, which allowed me to go to the Galapagos four different times for field work, all facilitated by my Ph.D. advisor Patty Parker. Yet, I craved the ability to do experiments, and I was increasingly interested in how evolution worked at the molecular level.

I began to really want to study plants as hosts instead of difficult to study birds in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I hadn’t studied anything related to toxins until I became a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard. There I worked with Naomi Pierce, who studied plant-insect interactions, and with Fred Ausubel at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. They used the plant Arabidopsis thaliana as a model to study how hosts coped with sequential attack by two very different enemies—pathogenic bacteria on the one hand, and caterpillars on the other. I began to study this system and tease apart how the plant coped with these two antagonists and used the power of molecular genetics and biology to do so. It turned out that one of the main ways the plants defend themselves was by producing compounds that turned into wasabi-like mustard oils upon attack. That was my first experience studying toxins, and I really never looked back. 

How did the Guggenheim fellowship help support and inform your work? 

First, it was sort of a very high level nod of approval—that the intellectual idea to write a book that tied together our biological history with our cultural history and geopolitical history.

Second, it provided financial support so I could take a full year of sabbatical. Without the Guggenheim, it is unlikely I would have had the courage or the financial ability to write the book. I am grateful for it because it was the first kind of private foundation fellowship like that I’d ever won and it taught me that you have to throw your hat in the ring to have a chance. I like that it wasn’t just a fellowship that somebody else nominated you for, because to me those are by the very definition, highly biased in terms of who gets nominated (and who doesn’t). This seemed fairer somehow because I had to get the packet together and do it. It required letters of recommendation too and I’m grateful to my mentors for believing in me as the vessel through which this book emerged.

I’m grateful to my mentors for believing in me as the vessel through which this book emerged.
Noah Whiteman, Professor

What’s currently on your bookshelf or nightstand? (What are you reading for pleasure?)

Honestly, I am so ensconced in my world of biology and science generally that I read it, including primary research and news stories about science, for pleasure and for work. I love reading Bay Nature magazine at night, which focuses on natural history of the San Francisco Bay Area and has both beautiful art and beautiful prose. Lately, though, because I’m teaching my evolution class, I’ve been re-reading material I use for that class, including both Charles Darwin’s writings and the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace, some of which I ask my students to do as well. Finally, I recently finished Beronda Montgomery’s nonfiction book Lessons from Plants, which is terrific. 

Read more about Prof. Whiteman's research:

The academic research side of my lab continues to pursue basic questions on the genetic basis of co-evolution between species. Recent research studies include: