Researchers have demonstrated how proteins known as ion channels are able to distinguish between different temperatures.
Experts from UC Davis School of medicine showed that the building blocks of these ions can assemble in different combinations, which then yield new channels making them capable of detecting a different temperature.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
"Researchers in the past have assumed that because there are only four genes, there are only four heat-sensitive channels, but now we have shown that there are many more," explained Jie Zheng, research lead and associate professor of physiology and membrane biology at the institute.
During the study, researchers were able to find that when different subunits combine, the hybrid channel is then able to detect temperatures which are in between what the usual parent channels pick up.
TRPV1 is the channel which reacts to hot temperatures of up to 100 degree Fahrenheit and spicy foods, while TRPV3 senses heat of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, when the TRPV1 and TRPV3 subunits recombine the channel can pick up temperatures around 92 degrees.
"Knowing that there are many distinct heat-sensing ion channels now opens the way to understand how neurons encode precise temperature information, an important process that allows us to enjoy the rich spectrum of temperature in life – a memorable warm handshake, a soothing shower and a cup of hot latte – and add vanilla flavour, please," Professor Zheng added.
In spicy food, a molecule called capsaicin gives products their heat and it is the main compound which is found in chilli peppers.
Contrary to popular belief, drinking water when the mouth feels like it is on fire will not work as capsaicin is not soluble.
However, drinking high alcohol content beers or wines will take away the pain as capsaicin is soluble in these liquids.