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August 12, 2008

Love spicy food? Thank the bugs

Posted: 10:03 AM ET

Ever wonder why chili peppers are hot, and why some are hotter than others? Well, new research shows the credit goes to insects and microbes.


Researchers at the University of Washington, along with colleagues from Florida and Bolivia, found that some peppers develop that heat to fight a seed-eating fungus that attacks through holes made by insects. The chili doesn't want the fungus to consume the seeds; it much prefers that birds cozy up to the seed smorgasboard. When birds eat seeds, they disperse them, allowing them to sprout. When fungi chow down, the seed just dies.

So why don't birds object to the spiciness? The researchers say the birds' physiology is not designed to sense the burn.

The scientists studied chili peppers across 1,000 square miles in Bolivia. They found that plants in areas with more of the seed-destroying fungus produced more capsaicin, the substance that gives the peppers their heat.

Another interesting tidbit from the researchers - the capsaicin could be the reason humans starting eating the painful fruit in the first place. Lead author Joshua Tewksbury says back before there was refrigeration, people probably used the peppers when they found that spicy stews were less likely to make them sick.

The study was published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Diane Hawkins-Cox, Senior Producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: science

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Larry   August 12th, 2008 3:29 pm ET

I've long contended that the use of highly spiced (read "hot") foods in countries near the equator was to hide the taste of spoiling food. People just blame their diarrhea on the spiciness rather than on the spoiled food itself. That the spiciness would prevent the food from making one sick seems a less likely rationale.

Ze'ev Abigador   August 12th, 2008 5:18 pm ET

If capsaicin kills fungus, how it affects the bacteria in our stomachs?

Rory   August 12th, 2008 6:06 pm ET

Definitely. My wife grew up in Bangkok, and it is almost impossible to get her to refrigerate food. Counterintuitively, she rarely did so when living in Bangkok because everything was smothered in chilies and never spoiled, even in stifling heat and humidity. Food spoils a lot faster in countries that don't use a lot of spices, even if the temperature is far more moderate.

jeeff   August 12th, 2008 10:12 pm ET

brilliant! more thinking like this please. we lost so much profound knowledge as we gained the trappings of civilization. maybe with ingenuity and technology we can have both.

Priya   August 13th, 2008 7:38 am ET

I agree with Rory. Most of the families in India won't refrigerate food even today. Because Indian recipes has lots of spices. Turmeric and peppers keep the food safe.

Mike   August 13th, 2008 10:24 am ET

It's not that the birds' physiology is "not designed to sense the burn", it is that chiles evolved the ability to produce a chemical (capsaicin) that specifically targets mammals but not birds. It is beneficial to the chiles to be eaten by birds for seed dispersal. This would have been a nice opportunity for the CNN science editors to educate the public about how evolution works, using animals and plants we are all familiar with. Instead, they dropped the ball. Birds and chiles and mammals were not designed, they evolved.

Anyway, cool science! Nice job by Tewksbury et al.

Payton   August 13th, 2008 11:55 am ET

I didn't know plants could "want" or "prefer". Is this some kind of new "Science" or just a joke. This guy isn't serious, is he?? Does this guy get paid "taxpayer money" to make stuff up?

"The chili doesn’t want the fungus to consume the seeds; it much prefers that birds cozy up to the seed smorgasboard. "

Ravensun   August 13th, 2008 2:56 pm ET

Payton – get a sense of humor!

Of course it's a joke! I, for one, found it amusing and tongue-in-cheek. Good article!

Franko   August 14th, 2008 2:36 am ET

Credit the bugs for fruit tree variety. Bugs damage, creating fugai opportunity.
A way to hide, is to confuse the bugs, by limited genetic production lines.

Extrapolating this concept to humans, Vive la Différence!

Lee K   August 14th, 2008 2:27 pm ET

Really, Payton... maybe you should stick to articles that aren't over your head.

Franko   August 15th, 2008 1:23 am ET

What does a Venus Fly Trap think, when you spice the fly with pepper.
Yum yum, thank you, that killed the hunger, or thoughtless ahhchu ?

Franko   August 16th, 2008 12:21 pm ET

If you fattened the Venus Fly Trap, all kinds of spices.
Discovered, the next, ultimate pizza topping, to die for ?

Chris   August 21st, 2008 10:37 pm ET

Yes, reading over this again and keeping all the comments in mind, this was surely bad reporting whipped up within an hour of getting the press release.

Deborah   August 22nd, 2008 5:20 pm ET

Brilliant! Like the grey squirrel who eats only the pleasing tasting, lipid enriched for long winter survival, top of the acorn-the bottom is bitter enabling the seed portion to germinate and became another tree- so the chili pepper has evolved its own method of proliferation. Nature is full of amazing secrets and life finds a way to continue in ways we have yet to discover.

Sto   August 23rd, 2008 7:13 pm ET

Franko, you are babbling nonsense. Even the coherent parts are unnecessary and take away from the conversation.

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