NMSU students study chile color and pungency
Spicy flavor and vibrant color are two of the most defining characteristics of a chile pepper. Heat and color are also areas where two doctoral students at New Mexico State University are focusing their research--and earning recognition.
Ivette Guzman and Neda Keyhaninejad are both Ph.D. students in agronomy in NMSU's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, formerly the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. The two recently won travel awards based on poster presentations of their work at the Banff Conference of Plant Metabolism in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The awards helped defray the cost of their trip and allowed them to tour the town of Banff and the surrounding Banff National Park.
Guzman is a Denton, Texas, native. She received her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio and her master's in biology from Texas Woman's University. She plans to graduate from NMSU this spring with a focus on plant genetics.
Her poster for the conference was titled "Carotenogenesis of Orange Color in Capsicum annuum Fruit." The research project identified the molecular explanation for the orange color in some chiles. These color pigments are valuable in the nutritional quality of chile, especially in fighting vitamin deficiency.
"Vitamin A deficiency is a big problem in some third world countries. That problem can be fixed by eating high amounts of orange-colored fruit," Guzman said.
Keyhaninejad received her bachelor's degree in her home country of Iran where she studied plant science and genetics. She has been at NMSU for the past three and a half years, earning her master's in agronomy and now working on her doctorate.
Keyhaninejad's poster presentation was titled "Identification and Characterization of Transcription Factors In Capsicum." Her project described the unique gene expression regulators predicted to control the pathway for pungency in chile.
Genetics and the environment affect the specific heat value of chile, so pungency is difficult to precisely predict. This becomes a problem for growers because the heat in chile will vary in acreage, depending on the environment. A better understanding of transcription factors could lead to chiles with more consistent spiciness.
"Transcription factors could identify what makes chile hot," Keyhaninejad said. "We know that hot tasting chile is beneficial and if we can understand that pathway, we'll better understand what makes chile hot."
"These students are doing some very important work," said Mary O'Connell, a faculty adviser for both Guzman and Keyhaninejad. "It's unusual for students to use so many skills on one project, including DNA sequencing, DNA expression, and using analytical instruments and mass spectrometers. It makes them very attractive to future employers."
NMSU students Ivette Guzman and Neda Keyhaninejad study the color and heat characteristics of chile peppers. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips.)