Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


New research reveals why chili peppers are hot

Despite the popularity of spicy cuisine among Homo sapiens, the hotness in chili peppers has always been something of an evolutionary mystery.

A plant creates fruit in order to entice animals to eat and disperse its seeds, so it doesn't make sense for that fruit to be painfully hot, said University of Florida zoology professor and evolutionary ecologist Douglas Levey.

But according to new research by Levey and six colleagues from other universities, chilies have a very good reason to make themselves hot. It boils down to protection.

Based on research on wild chili plants in rural Bolivia, the scientists found that the leading cause of seed mortality is a fungus called Fusarium. The fungus invades the fruits through wounds made by insects and destroys the seeds before they can be eaten and dispersed.

Capsaicin, the chemical that makes the peppers hot, drastically slows microbial growth and protects the fruit from Fusarium. And while capsaicin deters local mammals, such as foxes and raccoons, from consuming the chilies, birds don't have the physiological machinery to detect the spicy chemical and continue to eat the peppers and disperse seeds, Levey said.

The researchers' findings will be released today in a paper published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Levey and his colleagues were able to arrive at these conclusions because at least three of the approximately 15 species of chilies that grow in the Bolivian wild are polymorphic for pungency, which means that some individuals of those species produce pungent fruit and others produce non-pungent fruit. This provided the researchers with natural experimental conditions under which they could compare Fusarium attack on fruits with and without capsaicin.

Upon studying various chili pepper plants, the researchers observed a clear correlation between high levels of capsaicin and low seed mortality due to fungal growth, Levey said.

And the chemical doesn't just help the plants that produce it, either. Levey said the consumption of chilies can help protect humans from the dangerous diseases that are so plentiful in tropical climates.

"The use of chili peppers as a spice has spread to nearly every culture within 20 degrees of the equator, and it tends to decline as you move toward the poles," Levey said.

The capsaicin in chilies, one of the first plants domesticated in the New World, may have been used to protect human food from microbial attack long before refrigeration or artificial preservatives were available, he said.

One question Levey and his colleagues are still pondering is why any nonhot chilies remain if capsaicin is so beneficial. Their hypothesis is that the production of the chemical comes at a steep price for chili plants.

Levey said the plants that produced hot chilies had seeds with very thin coats – a presumed consequence of sacrificing the production of lignin, a complex molecule that makes up the protective seed coat, in favor of the production of capsaicin.

This phenomenon represents an interesting tradeoff between chemical and physical seed protection and demonstrates the power of natural selection, Levey said.

At higher elevations, where moisture is high and Fusarium fungus is rampant, the scientists found that 100 percent of the plants produced hot chilies. In the drier lowlands, where fungus is less of a problem, only 40 percent of the plants produced fiery fruits. The remainder spent more resources developing thick seed coats, which protect against the devastating ant populations common to lower areas.

While all of the plants look identical, telling the difference between hot and non-hot chilies is not difficult, Levey said.

"Just pop one in your mouth," he said. "You'll find out pretty quick."

Douglas Levey | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>