Where did the Chili Get its Spice? Biogeography of Capsaicinoid Production in Ancestral Wild Chili Species
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The biogeography of pungency in three species of wild chili in the chaco and surrounding highland habitats of southeastern Bolivia is described. We report that Capsicum chacoense, C. baccatum, and C. eximium are polymorphic for production of capsaicin and its analogs, such that completely pungent and completely nonpungent individuals co-occur in some populations. In C. chacoense, the density of plants and the proportion of pungent plants increased with elevation. Above 900 m, all individuals in all populations except two were pungent; nonpungent individuals in at least one of the two polymorphic populations were likely a result of spreading by humans. The occurrence of pungent and nonpungent individuals in three species of ancestral Capsicum and the geographic variation of pungency within species suggest that production of capsaicin and its analogs entails both costs and benefits, which shift from one locality to another. Determining the selection pressures behind such shifts is necessary to understand the evolution of pungency in chilies.