Spicy bugs.

If you like your food a little spicy, EurekAlert.org might whet your appetite in a crawly kind of way… because hot peppers owe everything to bugs:

The spiciness is a defense mechanism that some peppers develop to suppress a microbial fungus that invades through punctures made in the outer skin by insects. The fungus, from a large genus called Fusarium, destroys the plant’s seeds before they can be eaten by birds and widely distributed.

“For these wild chilies the biggest danger to the seed comes before dispersal, when a large number are killed by this fungus,” said Joshua Tewksbury, a University of Washington assistant professor of biology. “Both the fungus and the birds eat chilies, but the fungus never disperses seeds – it just kills them.”

The scientists collected chilies from seven different populations of the same pepper species spread across 1,000 square miles in Bolivia. In each population, they randomly selected peppers and counted scars on the outer skin from insect foraging. The damage was caused by hemipteran insects – insects such as seed bugs (similar to aphids and leaf hoppers) that have sucking mouth parts arranged into a beaklike structure that can pierce the skin of a fruit.

The researchers found that not all of the plants produce capsaicinoids, so that in the same population fruit on one plant could be hotter than a jalapeño while fruit from other plants might be as mild as a bell pepper. But there was a much-higher frequency of pungent plants in areas with larger populations of hemipteran insects that attack the chilies and leave them more vulnerable to fungus.

The scientists also found that hot plants got even hotter, with higher levels of capsaicinoids, in areas where fungal attacks were common. But in areas with few insects and less danger of fungal attack, most of the plants lacked heat entirely.

This might be a good argument for organic habaneros.