That's Hot! Genome May Lead to Even Spicier Peppers

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Scientists have sequenced the genome of the pepper plant, revealing the genes responsible for pepper's spiciness.

The new genome, detailed today (March 3) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could pave the way for even more mouth-numbingly hot peppers.

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"The findings will provide foundation for further developing molecular makers and research on related pepper agronomy traits, and help breeders accelerate the research of new breeds by molecular biology techniques," said study co-author Cheng Qin, a researcher at Sichuan Agricultural University in China.

VIDEO: How Did Hot Peppers Get Their Spice?

Peppers were first domesticated by Native Americans in the tropics of South America as far back as 8,000 years ago, from a wild variant known as Chiltepin annuum (variant glabriusculum). The pepper, which is part of a family that includes the tomato and the potato, soon spread from the New World after Columbus arrived in the Americas.

After hundreds of years of breeding, chili peppers now come in a dizzying array of colors and flavors, from the bland Anaheim pepper to the scorching Scotch bonnet. More than 34.6 million tons of the peppers were harvested in 2011. [Tip of the Tongue: The 7 (Other) Flavors We Can Taste]

In recent years, hot pepper aficionados have used old-fashioned breeding to amp up the heat-producing compound, called capsaicin, to make ever more insanely hot peppers. Some of the resulting peppers, including the Carolina Reaper and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, can be 100,000 times as spicy as the humble pimento pepper, and researchers have calculated that 2.7 pounds of the spice from these peppers would be enough to kill a human. (For comparison, a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion contains about the same amount of capsaicin as a shot-glass of law enforcement-grade pepper spray.)