Why Chili Peppers Are So Important To These 2021 Nobel Prize Winners

Can you handle the heat? Well, a couple of brilliant scientists fulfilled their mission to understand the reasons why — or why not. As it turns out, chili peppers not only give meals an extra kick and boost our immune system, but they also are a major contributor to recent, distinguished scientific explorations. American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, studied the ways in which people perceive heat, cold, and different levels of pressure, according to CNN.

Let's meet the laureates! David Julius, a physiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscience professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Scripps Research Institute, teamed up to unveil exactly how our bodies identify the sense of touch as well as react to a spectrum of temperatures. Basically, they discovered new receptors that transform the heat from eating spicy foods, menthol's cooling sensation, or the pressure of a hug into nerve signals that are sent to the brain, according to Science News. The fascinating study was a resounding success thanks to a variety of factors, including the almighty chili pepper.

Chili peppers can help us understand how humans feel heat

So, how were everyday chili peppers used in the triumphant study? To describe it in laypeople's terms: Capsaicin, which is the pungent compound that causes a burning sensation when we eat peppers, played a clever, key role in the experiment. To conduct the study, the team developed a library of millions of DNA fragments that match up to the genes found within humans' sensory neurons — the ones that detect heat, cold, and physical touch. Then, to find the single gene that caused these types of sensitivities, they inserted these genes into cells that don't normally react to capsaicin. The team later realized that the capsaicin receptor is also a heat-sensing receptor that is activated at temperatures that are perceived as painful, reported CNN.

"The sensation that we get when we eat spicy food is something so familiar and it has such a personal and cultural significance to so many people," said Mike Caterina, a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who worked with David Julius in the mid-1990s during the first discoveries of capsaicin (via CNN). "Everyone has a hot food story and everyone has experienced painful heat." Scientists had been on the hunt for touch and temperature receptors for many years before Julius and Ardem Patapoutian began their work, according to Walter Koroshetz, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (via Science News).

These groundbreaking discoveries will be used to develop innovative treatments for chronic pain and other conditions. Ah, the power of peppers!