Grapevine-Infecting Acne Bacteria Named For Frank Zappa
February 19, 2014

Grapevine-Infecting Acne Bacteria Named For Frank Zappa

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

What would you do if you discovered an odd strain of bacteria that exhibited unconventional behavior? Why, name it after Frank Zappa of course!

This is exactly what a team of Italian and Austrian researchers did when they found a bacterium that had apparently transitioned from causing acne in human skin to infecting the bark of grape vines.

“This is the first time it’s been found that a microorganism can switch from a human to a plant,” study author and self-professed Zappa fan Andrea Campisano, a microbiologist at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy, told the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to being a tribute to the late musician, the naming of P. acnes zappae is also a hat-tip to the Italian word for “hoe,” which is “zappa.”

Campisano is such a big fan of the experimental musician – he said he even has a quote from him prominently displayed on his lab computer screen: "If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television … then you deserve it."

The researchers discovered the novel bacterium by conducting a gene-based microbiome analysis on stems of plants taken from multiple sites throughout Northeast Italy. They found that the bacterium colonizes bark tissue and the pith, where the bacterium can take up residence within cells – according to the team’s report, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

The research team also looked into the evolutionary background of P. a. zappae by using two marker genes, recA and tly. Surprisingly, their results showed a human origin for the bacterium. Their data also indicated a loss of function of recA, a protein required for the repair of DNA. This means that P. a. zappae must rely on its grapevine host for survival – meaning P. a. zappae has adapted to an entirely new intracellular ecological niche in grapevines.

Finally, they approximated the emergence of P. a. zappae to be around 7,000 years ago, an age that works with the first domestication of the grapevine and a time when the grafting and pruning of vines may have resulted in the transfer to its new host.

“Probably as soon as humans started to touch this plant, this bug that used to live on human skin found a very hospitable environment inside the cells of the grape vine,” Campisano said.

The researchers noted that the bacterium does not cause harm to the grape vines. They added that it simply changed its metabolism from consuming human fatty acids to those of plant cells.

“It has extensively restructured its genome and DNA and it’s now unable to go back to its earlier, human-associated form,” Campisano said.

Zappa was best known for his experimental songs and bizarre sense of humor. While he was popular for his sonic experimentations, he also composed more classically-styled music.

In reaction to the naming, Frank Zappa’s widow Gail told USA Today she thought it was “fantastic that the researchers named the bacteria for her husband.”

"They pursued it, they didn't just think, 'This is something that's irrelevant or unimportant.' They realized that every piece fits together," she said.