How peppers have proliferated around the planet

Peppers are cosmopolitan, a vegetable that comes in many more varieties than there are nations in the world. One day, you can slice a s...


Peppers are cosmopolitan, a vegetable that comes in many more varieties than there are nations in the world. One day, you can slice a sweet orange pepper to dip in hummus. You can also roast red peppers and toss them in a dip or sauce, such as ajvar or romesco. Poblano peppers can add a little heat to a dish, or even become a meal like chili rellenos. Corn watch out for Carolina Reaper peppers.

All of these dishes have in common the humble pepper tree, or Capsicum spp. The plant is native to Central and South America and eventually crossed the oceans in the hands of traders, explains Pasquale Tripodi of the CREA Research Center for Vegetable and Ornamental Crops in Italy. In an article published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesDr. Tripodi and his European colleagues shared the results of their studies on the genetics of more than 10,000 samples of peppers from around the world.

Their findings reveal intriguing details about the plant’s global journeys, such as how the trading networks of a colonial power may have spread peppers all over the place, and how some plants ended up becoming sweet and crunchy while d others have acquired their fiery character.

Millions of seeds lie in a handful of cold, isolated rooms around the world, known as plant gene banks. These depots keep seeds in stock for the use of breeders and researchers, allowing access to the widest possible variety of traits. A wild eggplant whose roots can resist mold, a hardy tomato that does not wither in scorching heat, a wheat whose ears stay together in devastating rains – these plants can be crossed with tastier varieties in the garden. hope to produce crops for an uncertain future.

Gene banks take careful care of their inhabitants, periodically germinating seeds and collecting new ones to ensure that most of their collections remain viable. But relatively few researchers have turned the tools of genetic sequencing on this ocean of genes.

Since gene banks keep track of where each sample was collected, it should be possible to see where a plant, like pepper, ended up and if there are genetic links between certain regions. , as well as what happened once they arrived in a new area and were modified by some newly minted pepper lovers.

Dr Tripodi and his colleagues focused on the most consumed group of peppers, Capsicum annuum, the species cultivated in peppers of all colors, cayenne peppers and jalapeƱos. Researchers found that Europe and Asia shared a variety of types, suggesting that peppers moved along trade routes between East and West. There were also links between peppers from Eastern Europe and those from the Middle East, possibly reflecting Ottoman trade routes. The team speculates that Portuguese traders, who in the 16th century moved between South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, may have carried peppers with them, helping to explain the similarities between African peppers and those at each end of this long axis.

Once the peppers gained admirers in a new location, farmers seem to have made their own selections over the years; Eastern European peppers were sweeter and less pungent, while East Asian peppers were small and fiery. Researchers have found genes associated with these and other traits that could be useful to breeders in the future.

The researchers also made a surprising discovery when checking the data for duplications – a significant fraction of the genebank pepper collections were not unique. This meant that genebanks unintentionally kept multiple copies of seeds, perhaps in part because without genetic testing, it’s hard to tell if a new seed packet is identical to an existing packet. As sequencing becomes cheaper and easier, it can alter how genebanks work, not only by revealing history or providing information to breeders, but by shaping the process of saving these plants for the future. to come up.

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