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For peppers, hot quite literally the spice of life, UF research shows

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- It adds the fire to chili and the hot to salsa, but what does the zing do for the pepper?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Working with the ancestor of most varieties of chili pepper plants, a University of Florida researcher has shown that the plant relies on its spiciness to ensure the very survival of its species.

In an article set to appear in Nature on Thursday, Josh Tewksbury, a UF postdoctoral researcher in zoology, and co-author Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotanist at Northern Arizona University, conclude that mammals, sensitive to the chemical that makes peppers taste hot, avoid the Capsicum annuum pepper. Birds, however, are unaffected by the chemical, known as capsaicin, and they happily eat the peppers. This is essential for the plant, since birds release the seeds in their droppings ready to germinate -- whereas if mammals ate the seeds, they would crunch them up or render them infertile, the researchers report.

"The upshot is that its very beneficial for the pepper to have mammals avoid its fruit and have birds attracted to them," Tewksbury said.

Plants that produce apparently poisonous or undesirable fruits the edible reproductive body of a seed plant -- have long puzzled biologists. Evolutionary theory says the main reason that plants create fruits is to encourage animals to eat them, so that the animals will disperse the plants seeds. Why, biologists wonder, would plants go to the trouble of making a fruit, only to use chemicals to deter an animal and potential seed distributor?

Evolutionary biologist Dan Janson proposed in the late 1960s that plants may use chemicals to deter some animals without deterring others, thus selecting only preferred seed distributors. Known as directed deterrence, this theory received very little attention and was never observed in nature, and it gathered dust in scholarly journals until Tewksbury and Nabhan decided to see if it might hold true in chili peppers.

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Contact: Josh Tewksbury
jtewksbury@zoo.ufl.edu
803-725-1769
University of Florida
25-Jul-2001


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