Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hot Peppers and Medicinal Chemistry: Adventures in Stupid Science(tm)

Above: pain

Trinidad scorpion peppers are the hottest peppers in the world, and will actually blister your skin if you touch the oil. They measure spiciness in Scoville units; jalapenos are 8,000 and scorpions are 1,500,000. If Clive Barker bred his own pepper, these would be it. Back in May, for some sadomasochistic reason, my friend had a party where he invited people to a feast of these Lovecraftian abominations. Surprisingly, some idiots accepted his invitation. Not surprisingly, all of them had Y chromosomes. Even less surprisingly I was among them. There were medicinal chemists in the audience, presumably because they are bad people and enjoy the suffering of other living beings. (If you're on the San Diego New Atheists Facebook group, this is the guy who put the Flying Spaghetti Monster on his garage door for the holidays. Do not under any circumstances accept an invitation from him as he makes Hans Fritzl seem like a good host.) The reason I'm posting this here is because my otherwise inexplicable behavior afforded me a chance to be a good rationalist, and put my money where my mouth was regarding a theory I had. And then change my mind if I was wrong, all to the delight of sadistic onlookers.

(If you're interested in the evolutionary advantages a plant might gain by being "hot", skip to the end.)[1]

My theory? I'd long had the idea, based partly on biochemistry and partly on personal experience, that the best way to decrease hotness would be (counterintuitively) to consume something hot, but not really hot, after the initial killer-hot food. (This is not the Homer Simpson candle wax approach.) I'd noticed this years ago when I'd put too many jalapenos on something, and then a minute later eaten some spicy but not really hot barbecue sauce, and thought I noticed that the heat abated quickly. Thus was an historic experiment in Stupid Science(tm) born!

(In my defense, prior to receiving disconfirming data, this theory might actually have made sense, if the hotness of these peppers and Tabasco relies on different capsaicinoid compounds. If you care about the science, skip to footnote [2] at the end.)

The stakes were high: if I failed, not only would my theory be disproven (in front of a bunch of medicinal chemists no less) but I would be in considerable pain. As if to highlight the risks, when I got there the host was walking around with an ice pack under his shirt, and the only guy that had eaten a whole one was actually crying from the pain. A sensible person would have noted the carnage and returned home, but in the name of science I forged on! (Warning, language. Trust me, if you did this you would have language too.) Thus I readied my last will and testament, and got the pepper and the putative Tabasco antidote ready.


Do note the cruel crowd's cackling at my failure,
not least the camerawoman,whose clear bias in her reporting
is an embarrassment to all journalists and a
likely indicator of deep character flaws

That's ice cream at the end. It didn't help either. Now of course I could have said maybe the heat in Tabasco and scorpions comes from the same compound (in which case we really didn't test the theory,[2] but it still means this trick won't work); maybe they are different compounds, and the amount of capsaicin in the pepper overwhelmed the Tabasco; N=1, p>0.05, underpowered, yada yada. We never know whether a statement is true, or (contra Popper) even false with absolute certainty (even in Stupid Science), but this obviously decreased my confidence in the spicy food partial agonist approach, enough so that I shan't be trying it again. If you disagree, I invite you to replicate the experiment! (This is a great example where the marginal value of additional certainty is also dubious.)


[1] The stuff in the pepper that burns a mammal's mucuous membranes doesn't affect birds at all. It's not that birds are specially immune to it, it's that the compound specially deceives only mammals. Why this discrimination against mammals? Probably not coincidentally, mammals have teeth that can destroy seeds, and birds don't - birds fly miles and miles, then poop out the seeds whole, as you may have noticed immediately after going to the car wash. So any plant that makes a chemical that causes birds to eat it more than mammals will spread. Now why one particular mammal deliberately eats these hot plants anyway, that's less biology and more psychology, or perhaps lack thereof.)

[2] In pharmacology, an agonist is a molecule that binds to and turns on a receptor. A partial agonist binds to the same receptor, but doesn't turn it on as much. So the partial agonist is an antidote - it competes with the full agonist, and decreases the overall response. The agonist here was the scorpion pepper, and the partial agonist (had it worked) would have been the Tabasco. (This is used in medicine, for example in partial agonists that reverse the effect of narcotics like morphine.) The chemists I mentioned expressed interest in this hypothesis, and still more interest in watching someone else test it. (Note I'm assuming the pepper's and Tabasco's hotness relies on different capsaicinoids, a critical assumption! Which from this simple one-off experiment, appears to be wrong.)

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