Tag Archives: chili pepper

Credit: Pixabay.

Why scientists want to engineer spicy tomatoes

It might seem odd, but spicy chili peppers and juicy tomatoes are actually related. The two plant species split off from a common ancestor nearly 19 million years ago, embarking on very different paths. Now, scientists are thinking about engineering tomatoes that are spicy for industrial applications.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The pungency (or heat) of chili peppers is due to capsaicinoids, which originate from the pith (a tissue in the stems of vascular plants). When you eat chili, the signature heat is not actually a taste — it’s pain. The molecules activate nerve cells in the tongue, which the brain interprets as a burning sensation. In a way, eating chili is like placing a hot object inside your mouth, without having to deal with the thermal damage.

Scientists believe that Capsicum plants evolved this ability in order to ward off predators, such as large mammals. Meanwhile, birds — which are seed dispersers and thus are of great use to chili peppers — show no pain response to capsaicin.

There are 23 different types of capsaicinoids, and some more pungent than others, depending on the environment for which the pepper is adapted for. Previous research has shown that capsaicinoid production is regulated by certain genes, and tomatoes — the distant cousin of chili peppers — also have these genes. They, however, lack the biological machinery to turn them on.

. The expression of the gene (CS) encoding capsaicinoid synthase is directly affected by irradiance, temperature, and wounding. Higher temperatures and wounding also increase this enzyme activity. Credit: Trends in Plant Science.

The expression of the gene (abbreviated CS) encoding capsaicinoid synthase is directly affected by irradiance, temperature, and wounding. Higher temperatures and wounding also increase this enzyme activity. Credit: Trends in Plant Science.

In a new study, researchers at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil are investigating the potential genetic pathways that could enable the harvest of spicy tomatoes.

“We have the tools powerful enough to engineer the genome of any species; the challenge is to know which gene to engineer and where,” senior author Agustin Zsögön, a plant biologist at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil, said in a statement.

There are very practical reasons for engineering a spicy tomato. These juicy berries are a lot easier to grow than chili and would produce more capsaicin per surface area due to the large volume of the fruiting body. Chili has been a prized commodity ever since it was discovered during the voyages of Christopher Columbus, which at the time fetched prices similar to gold. Today, capsaicin has been shown to have therapeutic and nutritional properties. For instance, the molecules can work as antibiotics and painkillers, and research suggests that the chili juice reduces inflammation in the gut and has antidepressant properties. They’re also used in pepper sprays.

Transcriptional profile of genes related to the metabolism of pungency in hot pepper, sweet pepper, and tomato. Credit: Trends in Plant Science.

Transcriptional profile of genes related to the metabolism of pungency in hot pepper, sweet pepper, and tomato. Credit: Trends in Plant Science.

In order to engineer spicy tomatoes, the researchers have identified various genes whose expression can be jump-started. One tool to achieve this is through the use of transcriptional activator-like effectors (TALEs), a suite of proteins secreted by pathogenic Xanthomonas spp. bacteria when they infect plant hosts. The second strategy is the use of genome engineering for targeted replacement of promoters.

“In theory, you could use these genes to produce capsaicinoids in the tomato,” says Zsögön. “Since we don’t have solid data about the expression patterns of the capsaicinoid pathway in the tomato fruit, we have to try alternative approaches. One is to activate candidate genes one at a time and see what happens, which compounds are produced. We are trying this and a few other things.”

While the main focus of such preliminary research is to produce more capsaicin at scale, such endeavors could also result in a new variety of produce in the grocery aisle. I mean, admit it, who wouldn’t try a hot tomato?

 

Man gets terrible headaches after eating world’s hottest chili peppers

It started out just like any other medical case… Who am I kidding? This started out with a hot chili pepper eating contest.

The Carolina Reaper definitely isn’t your average chili pepper — it’s the hottest chili pepper on the planet. Image credits: Magnolia677 / Wikipedia.

Hot stuff

As you’d expect, a hot chili pepper eating contest comes with some risks — those risks became evident in the case of a man who reported excruciatingly painful episodic headaches after eating a ‘Carolina Reaper,’ the world’s hottest chili pepper. The first symptoms started right after he ate the pepper, but intensified as he experienced flashes of excruciating headaches, each lasting for a few seconds.

The pain was so severe he sought emergency care, but various tests returned negative, and it was unclear what was causing the pains — until he took a CT scan.

The CT scan revealed that several arteries of his brain had severely constricted, prompting the diagnosis of thunderclap headache secondary to reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS). Doctors wanted to warn both the medical community and the general population of this occurrence.

Thunderclap headaches are essentially severe headaches that reach maximum intensity after only a few seconds or a couple of minutes at most. They can be indicative of cranial hemorrhage and several other serious ailments

RCVS, which is typically characterized by temporary artery narrowing, is often accompanied by thunderclap headache. However, most of the time, it’s associated with prescription meds or illegal drugs. Researchers think that given the circumstance, it’s likely that in this instance, the problem was caused by the chili pepper — but it’s hard to be absolutely sure.

“Given the development of symptoms immediately after exposure to a known vasoactive substance, it is plausible that our patient had RCVS secondary to the Carolina Reaper, write the authors.

Thankfully, the man’s symptoms cleared out by themselves, and a subsequent CT scan five weeks later showed that his affected arteries had returned to their normal width. But the main takeaway remains — don’t mess with extremely hot chili peppers, contest or no contest.

The Carolina Reaper holds the Guinness World Record for the hottest chili pepper. The recorded heat level was 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) — for comparison, a Jalapeño has a maximum of 10,000 SHUs. This figure is measured by high-performance liquid chromatography.

Journal Reference: An unusual case of thunderclap headache after eating the hottest pepper in the world – “The Carolina Reaper” doi:10.1136/bcr-2017-224085
Journal: BMJ Case Reports