Harmless acne bacteria found in grapevines named for Zappa

The late rock musician Frank Zappa has his name on some creative compositions, but this may be a first: Researchers have attached his name to a bacteria best known for causing human acne, but now they've found a form of it in grapevines.

Don't worry, unlike in teenagers, the strain that evolved to live in the vines doesn't bother the grapes at all. No need for Clearasil on your zinfandel.

The researchers gave the bacteria an unlikely name, Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae, to honor Zappa.

The research group is based at the Center for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems and Bioresources in San Michele all'Adige, Italy. They were looking at the microbiome, the community of microorganisms that live in grapevines.

They found P. acnes, which surprised them.

The bacteria is found on the skin of almost all humans. It feeds off fatty acids in sebum secreted by skin follicles and is generally harmless. When excess sebum builds up in pores the bacteria can multiply and sometimes cause acne.

"We were sure it was some kind of contamination from a lab technician who touched a sample," said Andrea Campisano, lead author on the paper published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

The name came from a Zappa quote Campisano used as the screensaver on his computer:

"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."

Omar Rota-Stabelli saw the quote when he was analyzing the bacterial oddity and began listening to Zappa's songs as he worked.

Zappa was best known for his eclectic, experimental and sometimes humorous songs. Two that were popular on radio were Don't Eat The Yellow Snow and Valley Girl. Zappa experimented with sounds in highly innovative ways and also composed music in the classical style.

As the scientists discussed how the bacteria had gotten in the grapes, they did something "Zappa-style," said Rota-Stabelli. Instead of throwing out the data "we thought outside the box, worked on it, and found something very, very unexpected."

In a more academic vein, Zappa "was of Italian heritage and zappa means 'hoe' in Italian. We thought it was suitable, because this is an unexpected, agricultural bacteria," said Campisano.

Their paper suggests this was a unique transfer of a human bacteria to a plant.

David Mills, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, suggests such transfers are more common than is realized. As testing gets more precise, scientists are finding that bacteria have found homes in many previously unsuspected places.

The public needs to be aware that this is not a food safety issue. "This bacteria poses no danger to humans at all," he said.

Researchers at the Biocant Association for Technology Transfer in Cantanhede, Portugal, found the same bacteria in the microbiome of grapevines sampled there.

The research "unveils the extraordinary capacity of microorganisms to adapt to different environments, said Ana Gomes and Cátia Pinto, who do grape research and development at Biocant.

Campisano thinks the transfer happened when humans first began cultivating grapes.

"With grape vines, 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," he said.

By analyzing the molecular evolution of the bacteria, the researchers estimate the adaptation happened around 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Agriculture began in the Middle East, where grapes originated, about 10,000 years ago.

The bacteria do not damage or harm the grapes in any way. "We don't know what the grape vine is getting from its presence, but it's not fighting the bacteria. Somehow it lives happily in the cells," Campasino said


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