Things are heating up in the world of genetics. The hot pepper (Capsicum annuum) is one of the most widely grown spice crops globally, playing an important role in many medicines, makeups, and meals worldwide. Although the plant’s so-called capsaicin chemical is well known for spicing things up, until now the genetic spark responsible for the pepper’s pungency was unknown.
A team of scientists recently completed the first high-quality reference genome for the hot pepper. Comparing the pepper’s genome with that of its tame cousin, the tomato, the scientists discovered the gene responsible for fiery capsaicin production appeared in both plants.
While the tomato carried four nonfunctioning copies of the gene, the hot pepper carried seven nonfunctioning copies and one functioning copy, the team reports online today in Nature Genetics.
The researchers believe the pepper’s capsaicin-creating gene appeared after five mutations occurred during DNA replication, with the final mutation creating a functional copy. The mouth-burning chemicals likely protected the mutant pepper’s seeds from grazing land animals millions of years ago, giving the mutant a reproductive advantage and helping the mutant gene spread.
The team says the finding could help breeders boost the pepper’s heat, nutrition, and medicinal properties. One researcher even suggests that geneticists could activate one of the tomato’s dormant genes, enabling capsaicinoid production and creating a plant that makes ready-made salsa.