Grapevine bacteria named after Frank Zappa

19th February, 2014 by Lauren Eads

A bacteria known for causing human acne, but which now lives on grape vines, has been discovered by Italian scientists and named after the late musician Frank Zappa.

Frank ZappaPropionibacterium acnes, a formerly pimple-causing bacterium, has apparently moved from human skin to the bark of grape vines, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Italian scientists discovered the bacterium living in the bark of a grape vine noticing that its was the same bacteria that causes human acne, suggesting a unique transfer of a human bacteria to a plant.

Andrea Campisano, microbiologist of the Edmund Mach Foundation in San Michele all’Adige, Italy, and lead author of the study published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, said: “This is the first time it’s been found that a microorganism can switch from a human to a plant.”

Co-author Omar Rota-Stabelli, an evolutionary microbiologist at the foundation, used a “molecular clock” analysis, based on rates of DNA mutation, to estimate when the newly named P. acnes Zappae might have made its leap from finger to vine.

He said: “It turns out that the most probable date is about 7,000 years ago, which is when we estimate that we started cultivating grape vines.”

“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 “With grapevines, you cut a piece of vine and let it root in the soil. People would take a piece and touch it with their hands, and possibly they would have infected the vines.”

The bacterium does not appear to harm the grape vines.

Researchers believe it simply changed its appetite from human fatty acids to those of plant cells, and has adapted so well it now cannot go back to living on human skin, according to the study.

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

The name came from a Zappa quote Campisano, a Zappa fan, had used as the screensaver on his computer.

Gail Zappa, Zappa’s second wife, 69, told USA Today that she loved the idea of Zappa’s name being attached to the discovery.

“For me this is just an extension of Frank’s means of gluing things together, making sense of the universe. It’s strictly conceptual continuity,” she said.

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