Sure, plenty of musicians and bands have organisms named after them, like Mick Jagger (Aegrotocatellus jaggeri), Lady Gaga (Aleiodes gaga), and Beyoncé (Scaptia beyonceae). But only one man’s name is attached to enough creepy crawlers and single-celled amoebas to almost merit an entire zoo: Frank Zappa. Now, joining the Vallaris zappai, Amaurotoma zappa, phylum Zappa, Pachygnatha zappa, and Phialella zappai is Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae, a strain of bacteria that forms human acne. Frank Zapne, anyone?
As USA Today points out, scientists at Italy’s Center for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems and Bioresources were doing research on microbiome, the community of microorganisms that live in grapevine, when they detected an anomaly. Within the plant they uncovered the trace DNA of a bacterium that looked suspiciously like that of the common human acne bug. Rather than toss out the sample, the team took inspiration from the Zappa quote placed on a lab computer. “We approached it Zappa-style,” said researcher Omar Rota-Stabelli. “We thought outside the box, worked on it, and found something very, very unexpected.”
That unexpected discovery was that the organism had somehow moved from human to plant, marking the first time such an occurrence has been documented. While this won’t have any effect on your next glass of Riesling or lead to some mutant strain of acne, it does give researchers keen insight into the evolutionary capabilities of bacteria as influenced by human developments in agriculture.
By using a “molecular clock”, lead researcher Andrea Campisano discovered the bacteria made the transition from humans to plants 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. It has extensively restructured its genome and DNA and it’s now unable to go back to its earlier, human-associated form.”
Aside from Zappa’s inspirational words, the team points out that his “pioneering, genre-shifting approach” seemed appropriate for a plant with a similar M.O. Plus, Zappa means “hoe” in Italian. “We thought it was suitable, because this is an unexpected, agricultural bacteria,” Campisano added.
So, just what does Zappa’s estate think about the legendary rocker being associated with zits and pimples? “For me this is just an extension of Frank’s means of gluing things together, making sense of the universe,” said his widow Gail Zappa, who usually has a penchant for suing folks that use her late husband’s name. “It’s strictly conceptual continuity. They pursued it, they didn’t just think, ‘This is something that’s irrelevant or unimportant.’ They realized that every piece fits together.”
Below, celebrate this scientific achievement as you listen to The Best of Frank Zappa and think about all the zits you’ve ever had.