LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Jit Baral, a researcher at New Mexico State University, stepped into the lab and pulled a plastic gas mask over his face. He and two students strapped on heavy rubber gloves and lab smocks. They activated an exhaust fan to cycle air quickly from the room.
Then Baral gingerly lifted the object that triggered all the precautions -- a small, wrinkled red chile. This was no ordinary pepper. Baral was about to prove that the bhut jolokia, originally from northeastern India, is the hottest chile in the world.
He plopped it into an electric grinder, and caustic fumes filled the room. Next, Baral ran the powder through a machine to measure its spiciness, which registered as 100 times that of a typical jalapeno. The research landed the pepper in the Guinness World Records and was another coup for a school with an unusual academic flavor.
Some universities are known for their particle accelerators, others for their basketball teams. NMSU is renowned as a hotbed of chile innovation. Its agronomists create new strains of the pepper -- more than two dozen in the last 20 years. Engineers design equipment to harvest and process it. Geneticists try to modify the fiery fruit to resist diseases, and the university library is starting an archive for all things chile.
"Because of its enormous connection to the basic culture here, it's more than just a crop," said NMSU President Michael Martin. "It has a great deal to do with how people see themselves."
The school houses a Chile Pepper Institute to educate the public about the plant. Agriculture professor Paul Bosland founded the Institute in 1992 after he and other professors were deluged with e-mails from people worldwide with hot pepper inquiries. The most common question: How does one get rid of the sting on the skin after chopping chiles? The answer: Douse your hands in milk.
Bosland is NMSU's chile breeder and hot pepper point man. A gregarious Hal Holbrook look-alike, Bosland favors bolo ties and drives a magenta pickup with a "Chileman" license plate. He breeds disease-resistant chiles for local planters. But Bosland also has time for more fanciful pursuits, such as creating a black-and-orange chile for Halloween and a pink-and-white one for Valentine's Day.
Bosland won Harvard's "Ig Noble Prize" for dubious achievement in science after developing a heatless habanero, which is used to thicken salsa. "I got e-mails accusing me of selling my soul to the devil after that one," Bosland recalled.
This is a state, after all, that made its official question "red or green?" (As in, which flavor chile sauce do you want on your enchiladas?) Where decorative strings of dried chile husks called \o7ristras \f7hang from nearly ever door, and whose residents often have a separate freezer full of roasted chiles from the summer harvest to get them through the winter.
Early last century, a Mexican-born NMSU agriculture professor, Fabian Garcia, virtually created the state's chile industry by breeding a milder pepper that would appeal to Anglo palates. One strain was taken by a farmer to Southern California, where, to the chagrin of New Mexicans, it became known as the Anaheim chile. The other strains were planted in the lush fields that follow the Rio Grande as it winds past Las Cruces.
On the surface, Las Cruces (pop. 90,000) looks like any other Sunbelt town that's seeing an influx of coastal retirees, with new homes and chain restaurants springing up on desert land.
Just past the strip malls, however, subdivisions abruptly give way to chile farms. Processing and canning plants line the interstate. New Mexico's chile industry contributes about $400 million to the economy and employs 5,000 people.
But since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the state's chile crop has plunged almost 50% as cheaper foreign imports from Mexico, Peru and China pushed local growers out of the market. Chile farmers are selling to developers who replace fields with subdivisions.
"This is an industry we can't afford to lose," said Gene Baca, president of the New Mexico Chile Assn., a trade group. "Losing the chile industry in New Mexico is the equivalent to Napa Valley losing grape growing and wine production."
The industry has turned to NMSU -- a land grant institution charged with supporting the state's agricultural industry. Private chile interests have financed much of the university's hot pepper studies, but this year the state Legislature gave the school $860,000 to figure a way to make chile growing more cost-effective.
What led the first human to bite into a chile is a mystery. It could have been for medicinal purposes -- chiles contain cancer-fighting compounds, and Aztecs used the fruit to treat toothaches. Or it might have been for the pleasurable endorphin rush the body generates to counter the agonizing heat of a spicy pepper.