To learn more about the pepper, Qin and his colleagues sequenced the genome of a pepper cultivated at their institution, known as Zunla-1, along with its wild counterpart.
The team found that the pepper diverged from tomatoes and potatoes about 36 million years ago. In addition, about 81 percent of the plant's genome was made up of transposons, or so-called jumping genes that can move to other places within the genome. These genes were inserted about 300,000 years ago.
In addition, the team scanned the genomes of 18 cultivated peppers to compare differences between wild and cultivated varieties. The team found several genes associated with how long the seeds stay dormant, resistance to pests and longer shelf life.
The team also identified the genetic component behind spiciness. It turns out that a key gene can be duplicated a different number of times to provide more or less capsaicin. Bland varieties, by contrast, have a deletion of the heat-producing gene, the researchers found.
The findings suggest two new ways to breed even spicier peppers, either by identifying peppers with the right spice genes and cross-breeding them, or by genetically engineering the peppers to express more copies of the heat-producing genes, Qin said.
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