Science | Bacteria named after Frank Zappa

According to novel research, thefirst identification ofabacterium that hops from humans to plants has been made. Priopionibacterium acnes, a bacterial species universally renowned for its physical manifestations on skin, was up until now considered to be exclusive to humans. Yet, a relative strain of P.acnes has been discovered through isolation of bacterial colonies on plant bark.

The Italian researchers christened the new bacterium P. acnes Zappae, bringing back the eccentric and iconoclastic Frank Zappa for an encore.

Andrea Campisano, a microbiologist and zealous Zappa fan, of the Edmund Mach Foundation, championed the study published in the latest edition of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Taking Zappa’s words to work, Campisano said he displays a quote from the rock musician on hiscomputer screen in the laboratory:

“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.”

If life inspiration was not enough reason to name strains; ‘zappa’ in Italian, means hoe or weed, complementing justification of the name of an agriculturally related bacterium.

Detecting the DNA of a bacterium in grapevine cells was unforeseen for the researchers, who took the sample and applied ‘molecular clock’ analysis, based on DNA mutation rates, to estimate when the bacterium jumped onto the grapevine. Notably, their work shows transfer must have happened around 7,000 years ago, go back to its earlier, human-associated form”, said Campisano. When humans first began cultivating grapevines. Campisano elaborates:

“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.”

The researchers believe the bacterium changed its preference from feeding on human fatty acids to plant cells, establishing itself contentedly in the bark tissues and pit, without harming the vines. Revolutionizing its form to a state Zappa would probably welcome. The bacterium “has extensively restructured its genome and DNA and it’s now unable to go back to its earlier, human-as-sociated form”, said Campisano.

There is strong reason to believe the bacterium survives in other domesticated plants, according to the researchers, even if this is the original human-to-plant pathogen transfer. Continuing on, the team will seek to analyse the complete genome of P. Zappae, so that they may de- code the ways in which bacterial DNA changes following these transfers. With their discovery, the researchers hope new microbial treatments will be produced, to potentially enhance the crops condition, as well as other com- mercial crops, acting as probiotics do for humans.

Still, for Gail Zappa, the scientific discovery connects to her late husband since it is “just an extension of Frank’s means of gluing things together, making sense of the universe. It’s strictly conceptual continuity”.

Sofia Popov


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