Because Frank Zappa’s name popped up in the music collection of more than a few microbiological researchers, they used it to name a new strain of bacteria which causes zits in humans and is found growing on grapevines. The bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae, is found on most people’s skin, where it feeds from fatty acids, and is generally considered harmless. However, when an excess amount of it builds up in the skin’s pores it can undergo rapid growth and cause acne.
A research group with its base in San Michelle all’Adige, Italy, at the Center for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems and Bioresources, was conducting research on various microorganisms which live on grape plants when they made the discovery. They first thought that finding a microorganism on a plant that normally feeds on human skin could only be some sort of mistake. They believed that some contamination must have happened, that it was “a lab technician who touched a sample,” said Andrea Campisano, who led the team in preparing the paper which appeared Tuesday in Molecular Biology and Evolution, an academic journal.
Campisano liked a quote from Frank Zappa and he used the text as a screen saver. The quote says in effect that the boring and miserable life people lead, because they listened to everyone who ever told them what to do instead of thinking for themselves, is their own fault. One of Campisano’s colleagues, Omar Rota-Stabelli, noticed the quote, while he was working on analysis of the weird bacteria, and started listening to Zappa during his time in the lab.
Most people only learn about Frank Zappa through the grapevine because he preferred odd subjects, from pop songs about teens with zits to strange little ditties about bacteria, rather than the typical commercial themes of the day – causing him to not get much radio play until much later in his long career. With early titles like Let’s Make the Water Turn Black that is not really surprising, and although the general public never fully embraced him, some open-minded microbiologists did.
As the researchers dug deeper into answering how the grapevines had become home to the bacteria, they did something “Zappa-style,” reported Rota-Stabelli. Instead of discarding the data they went against the grain and looked at the data in a different way. This led them to making the unexpected discovery.
Their paper makes the case that this is a unique transfer of a human bacteria to a plant. Campisano said he thinks the transfer happened between eight and nine thousand years ago when humans first began cultivating grapevines. Grapevines are place in the ground by hand and the original transfer of the virus is likely to have happened by cultivators of grapes in the Middle East, where the origins of agriculture are believed to have started some 10,000 years ago.
Zappa’s name was chosen because it means “hoe” in Italian and the scientists thought it fitting as their discovery was agricultural and Zappa had Italian roots, according to Campisano.
The bacteria poses no threat to humans nor does it do any damage to the grapes, which seem unaffected by its presence. “Somehow it lives happily in the cells,” Campisano said.
When pop culture and microbiology live happily together, causing both an eclectic musician and a grapevine dwelling bacteria P. acnes to pop up whenever someone looks up either one of them, it is a small joy to just about everybody, apart from the teenagers who only know about the zits and have never even heard of Frank Zappa.
By Brian Ryer