The wild chili pepper Capsicum chacoense produces the spicy defense compounds known as capsaicinoids, including capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, which are antagonistic to the growth of fungal pathogens. Compared to other microbes, fungi isolated from infected seeds of C. chacoense possess much higher levels of tolerance of these spicy compounds, having their growth slowed but not entirely inhibited. Previous research has shown capsaicinoids inhibit microbes by disrupting ATP production by binding NADH dehydrogenase in the electron transport chain (ETC) and, thus, throttling oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS). Capsaicinoids may also disrupt cell membranes. Here, we investigate capsaicinoid tolerance in fungal seed pathogens isolated from C. chacoense We selected 16 fungal isolates from four ascomycete genera (Alternaria, Colletotrichum, Fusarium, and Phomopsis). Using relative growth rate as a readout for tolerance, fungi were challenged with ETC inhibitors to infer whether fungi possess alternative respiratory enzymes and whether effects on the ETC fully explained inhibition by capsaicinoids. In all isolates, we found evidence for at least one alternative NADH dehydrogenase. In many isolates, we also found evidence for an alternative oxidase. These data suggest that wild-plant pathogens may be a rich source of alternative respiratory enzymes. We further demonstrate that these fungal isolates are capable of the breakdown of capsaicinoids. Finally, we determine that the OXPHOS theory may describe a weak primary mechanism by which dihydrocapsaicin, but not capsaicin, slows fungal growth. Our findings suggest that capsaicinoids likely disrupt membranes, in addition to energy poisoning, with implications for microbiology and human health.IMPORTANCE Plants make chemical compounds to protect themselves. For example, chili peppers produce the spicy compound capsaicin to inhibit pathogen damage and animal feeding. In humans, capsaicin binds to a membrane channel protein, creating the sensation of heat, while in microbes, capsaicin limits energy production by binding respiratory enzymes. However, some data suggest that capsaicin also disrupts membranes. Here, we studied fungal pathogens (Alternaria, Colletotrichum, Fusarium, and Phomopsis) isolated from a wild chili pepper, Capsicum chacoense By measuring growth rates in the presence of antibiotics with known respiratory targets, we inferred that wild-plant pathogens might be rich in alternative respiratory enzymes. A zone of clearance around the colonies, as well as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry data, further indicated that these fungi can break down capsaicin. Finally, the total inhibitory effect of capsaicin was not fully explained by its effect on respiratory enzymes. Our findings lend credence to studies proposing that capsaicin may disrupt cell membranes, with implications for microbiology, as well as human health.
Keywords: Alternaria; Colletotrichum; Fusarium; OXPHOS; Phomopsis; capsaicin; capsicum; coevolution; complex I; flavonoid; glycolysis; membrane; mitochondria; secondary metabolites; seed pathogens.
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