Acne Bacteria Discovered In Grapevines Named After Rock Legend Frank Zappa

By Josh Lieberman on February 19, 2014 2:38 PM EST

frank zappa plant bacteria
An unusual bacteria that jumped from humans to plants has been named after Frank Zappa. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Italian researchers say a zit-causing bacteria jumped from humans to grapevines about 7,000 years ago, the first evidence ever of a human-to-plant pathogen transfer. In honor of the unusual discovery, the researchers have named the plant bacteria after an unconventional figure: Frank Zappa. (It is recommended that you play the instrumental Zappa track embedded below as you read on.)

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The bacteria is found in nearly all humans and is mostly harmless; if it builds up excessively in pores, though, it can cause acne. In plants, the bacteria--Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae, or P. Zappae--builds up on bark tissue but doesn't seem to cause any harm. Andrea Campisano, lead author of a study on P. Zappae, said that humans probably infected the plants by handling grapevines.

"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," said Campisano. "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 grapevine."

When the researchers first found the bacteria on a plant harvested from northeast Italy, they thought it had been contaminated by someone in the lab. But instead of dismissing the plant as contaminated, researcher Omar Rota-Stabelli decided to investigate "Zappa-style...we thought outside the box, worked on it, and found something very, very unexpected."

"This bacteria is so unconventional in its behavior, and its new habitat is so unexpected that we thought of Frank Zappa," say the groovy study authors in a press release. "Indeed, at the time we were discovering it, we were both playing a Zappa album in our cars." Campisano also had a Zappa quote on his lab computer's screensaver which read, "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 telling you how to do your s***, then you deserve it."

Zappa also wrote about "sand-blasted zits" in the song "Jewish Princess" on the controversial 1979 album "Sheik Yerbouti," so naming the acne-causing bacteria after Zappa was a no-brainer. (Fun fact about "Sheik Yerbouti": the album contained the song "Bobby Brown," which was such a surprise hit in Scandanavia that Zappa wanted to "hire an anthropologist from a major university and bring him to Scandinavia to examine the people here and find out why such a thing could happen. Because it's very unusual.")

Unfortunately, Zappa isn't around to appreciate the plant bacteria honor (he died in 1993). His widow, Gail Zappa, who sometimes likes to sue people, is cool with her husband's name being attached to the bacteria.

"[The researchers] pursued it, they didn't just think, 'This is something that's irrelevant or unimportant.' They realized that every piece fits together," she told told USA Today. She added that it fit in with the "conceptual continuity" that ran through her husband's work, with each album adding up to a greater whole. "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."

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