It’s BUGS! – If you’re a fan of spicy food, you owe a lot to bugs, both the crawling kind and ones you can see only with a microscope. New research shows they are the ones responsible for the heat in chili peppers.

The spiciness is a defense mechanism that some peppers develop to suppress a fungus that invades through punctures made in the outer skin by insects. The fungus destroys the plant’s seeds before they can be eaten by birds and widely distributed. The pungency comes from capsaicinoids, the same chemicals that protect them from fungal attack by dramatically slowing microbial growth.

Biologist Joshua Tewksbury says, “Capsaicin doesn’t stop the dispersal of seeds because birds don’t sense the pain and so they continue to eat peppers, but the fungus that kills pepper seeds is quite sensitive to this chemical.”

Using chemical substances as a defense is not unique to peppers. Tomatoes, for example, are loaded with substances that give their unripened fruit a decidedly unpleasant taste, allowing the seeds a chance to mature and be dispersed. But unlike peppers, tomatoes and most other fruits lose their chemical defenses when the fruit ripens. That is a necessary step, scientists believe, because otherwise the fruit would not be consumed by birds and other animals that disperse the seed. The problem with that strategy is that it leaves the fruit exposed to fungal attack.

The fact that chilies have capsaicin could be the reason humans started eating the peppers in the first place. Chili peppers and corn are among the earliest domesticated crops in the New World. Tewksbury says, “Before there was refrigeration?if you lived in a warm and humid climate, eating could be downright dangerous because virtually everything was packed with microbes, many of them harmful. People probably added chilies to their stews because spicy stews were less likely to kill them?Along the equator, without access to refrigeration, you could be dead pretty quickly unless you can find a way to protect yourself against the microbes you ingest every day.”

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