Zit-causing bug bears Frank Zappa's name
Frank Zappa's name has been bestowed on jellyfish, spiders and an asteroid -- and now, an acne-causing bacterium.
February 18th, 2014
05:04 PM ET

Zit-causing bug bears Frank Zappa's name

In 1968, Rolling Stone reported on how Frank Zappa influenced the Beatles. Nearly 50 years later, Zappa has inspired scientists to name a acne-causing bug after him.

Sound weird? Actually, it’s not. All kinds of beetles (Steven Colbert, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld), plants (Princess Diana orchid, President Obama moss ) and animals (John Cleese's wooly lemur ) are just some of the organisms named after celebrities.

It’s also not the first time that a critter has been named in honor of Zappa. Forty years ago, a mollusk extinct for 300 million years ago was named Amaurotoma zappa; a quarter century ago, a new genus of fish was named Zappa. The Zappa name has also been bestowed upon jellyfish and spiders. Astronomers even named an asteroid 3834 Zappafrank after the rock legend.

Now a group of Italian scientists report Tuesday  in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution that a pimple-causing bacterium found on humans hopped over and colonized grapevines more than 7,000 years ago. The authors named the bug P. Zappae in honor of the Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer of Italian descent.

In one of his most controversial songs, Zappa sung of wanting a Jewish princess with “sand-blasted zits.” He often referenced germs in his lyrics because he lived near a chemical warfare facility as a child. Despite these references, it’s unlikely that Zappa, who died in 1993, would have predicted having an influence on the field of microbiology.

Evolutionist Omar Rota-Stabelli was analyzing data the team had collected from bacteria on grapevines when he unexpectedly found the DNA from an acne-causing microbe on the plant. He thought it was a fluke.

Further analysis showed that the zit-causing bacterium had in fact found a new home in plant cells – the first evidence of a human-to-plant microbe transfer. (In case you were wondering, the plants don’t start breaking out.)

As Rota-Stabelli ran over to tell the team, he noticed the face of Zappa plastered on scientist Andrea Campisano’s computer background. Rota-Stabelli was inspired to stream Zappa’s songs; with “Bobby Brown” playing in the background, the scientists thought it was only natural to name the bacterium after something as unusual as it was – Frank Zappa.

"Frank Zappa was a very eccentric musician and somehow very unexpected in his behavior,” said Campisano, lead author of the research. “We really did not expect this (discovery) and we thought of him.”

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Filed under: Conditions • Germs

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