Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HOT Pepper! [UPDATE]

Violent coughing exploded from the adjoining lab as my labmate aspirated vannilnamide.

Step 3 in our pipeline to analyze the chemistry of fruit is to crush them into dry, frozen powder in what amounts to a $1,000 coffee grinder - often accompanied by a puff of nitrogen gas carrying fruit juice aerosols. If we had processed the sunberries earlier (which produced purple clouds of vapor that stained any nearby textiles), we may have known to grind the chili pepper samples in the chemical fume hood...

Grinding 10 grams of those tiny little chilies gassed our laboratory pretty effectively. As my labmate fought to catch her breath, I moved the apparatus to the fume hood and my boss opened the windows. It was pretty amazing how just being in that room for the next 10 minutes affected your eyes, mouth, nose and throat. Fun fact: humans also have hot pepper chemical receptors in their lungs! My boss joked that he know knew what it felt like to be a thief/bear (who got sprayed with mace).

My boss had described my previous experience with these chilies to our resident pepper breeder/geneticist. I was disappointed to hear that our "wild C. eximium" pepper accession actually shares morphological and DNA sequence characteristics with C. frutescens, and is almost certainly domesticated. Apparently C. frutescens accessions either have small, pungent fruit or large, nonpungent ones - ours obviously is the former.

The breeder also said that he knew which specific chemical must have been dominant in our accession based on the way its pungency built slowly in the back of my mouth. As I was searching the Internet for more examples of different chili chemicals with different properties, I stumbled across Mike's Pepper Garden, which describes the capsaicinoid family of chemicals in depth.


  1. *headsmack* Those peppers are dangerous. When I was a kid I touched what I thought was an ornimental pepper growing in someone's flowerbed. Then I rubbed my eye.

    More recently, a hot-sauce loving friend made his own fiery death sauce, and learned the hard wear that goggles are a must.

    Be careful!

  2. Interesting

    I have been growing capsicum pubescens for a few years in the UK - it tolerates our mild (read lousy) summers better than C.annuum, C. frutescens etc - shame it takes so long to fruit. I've also tried "ulupicas" - the latest is a larger fruited variety said to be c. eximium var pendulum. don't knbow whether these names have any scientific validity. It's really good, fleshy with an aromatic taste. grows into a tall bush.

    I shared a house with a guy that would insist on making very hot curries. He fried his own spices, including chillies. It was like being in the trenches in the first world war - so I too know that capsaicinoid receptors are present in the lungs.



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