Much like humans, chili peppers come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colours, and hotness.
Despite these superficial differences, chili peppers also have a common ancestor. But unlike humans, that common ancestor, the Capsicum genus, did not come from Africa, but rather South America some 16.8 million years ago.
Millions of years later, humans across the globe have evolved in concert with these spicy little buds that make food taste better, provide huge health benefits and can also cause hallucinations, home evacuations, and, in extreme cases, death.
Now, genetic studies are shedding more light on the fiery fruit that has been the source of our species' ambivalent relationship with heat and food. In a recent interview Scientific American, Mauro Grabiele—a scientist who has studied 22 different Capsicum species—synthesized his pepper knowledge and the growing body of science that helps us understand the origin of this species.
And while it may not be obvious to your mouth, chili peppers actually share a lot of genetic baggage with some more bland foods. "Their origin is recent within the Solanaceae family, to which potatoes and tomatoes also belong," Grabiele explained, adding that the Capsicum species can be traced back to three specific peppers: Andean chilies with 26 chromosomes, chilies from the coast of Brazil, and 24-chromosome Andean chilies.
So why is this apparent fixation with the past useful to modern science? Well, first off, it helps us appreciate how widely consumed peppers of varying heat and flavour are related. For instance, cayenne, jalapeño, Tabasco, and sweet peppers are all direct descendants of the 24-chromosome Andean chile.
But perhaps most intriguing is the fact that Gabriele's genetic research may have practical implications for the future of pepper growing. "Wild C. chacoense and cultivated and wild species of the C. annuum and C. baccatum complex are able to interbreed giving fertile offspring," Grabiele said.
This might sound like jargon (and it is) but what Gabriele is basically saying is that interbreeding wild and cultivated chilis may have huge economic repercussions because it could one day lead to drought- and disease-resistant peppers. Or in other words, tastier, more abundant peppers for humanity.
And it's all thanks to pepper nerds like Grabiele whose academic fixation on the past can make for a better, spicier future.