Plenty of researchers have attached their names to organisms they have discovered, or biological systems they have understood, let’s see, you have the Bowman’s capsule, the Calvin cycle, the Golgi apparatus, the Krebs cycle just to name a few at the top of my head. I have a tendency to think it’s totally pompous and pedantic to condemn generations of poor students to learn your last name with something already complicated to understand, but people continue to do it! It’s different to name something after someone else, in this case, it’s pure homage, but what if this something is a bacterium? A bacterium causing human acne! I am not sure it’s still homage material, but this is what happened to poor Frank Zappa: Researchers working at the Center for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems and Bioresources in San Michele all’Adige, Italy, have come up with Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae, to honor Zappa. Quite repulsing isn’t it?
If you want more gruesome details, let’s just say that this microorganism is found on the skin of every human being, and feeds off fatty acids in sebum (the fat secreted by your skin follicles). In most cases, these bacteria are harmless but in other cases, excess sebum builds up in pores, the microorganism multiplies, and you have a zit! Strangely it was discovered living in grapevines, as researchers discovered the bacteria within the plant when they uncovered DNA traces that resembled the common human acne bacteria
But what could be the connection with Zappa? It is a bit convoluted. First, one of the researchers, Andrea Campisano had this Zappa quote on her 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 shit, then you deserve it’, then researcher Omar Rota-Stabelli saw the quote and began to listen to Zappa while working, and then there was the location where the bacteria were found… on grapevines,… grapes! How did they get there? Their paper, which was published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, suggests that this was a unique transfer of human bacteria to a plant when human began to cultivate grapes around 8,000-9,000 years ago.
Rota-Stabelli said that, instead of throwing out the data, they ‘thought outside the box, worked on it, and found something very, very unexpected.’ And it was the ‘outside the box’ that seems to really make the connection with Zappa, and to top all this, Zappa had Italian origins, which looks perfect.
Zappa’s estate is totally happy about this, the legend’s widow, Gail Zappa, even declared to USA Today, ‘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.’ Okay if she said so…. I understand these bacteria are unconventional just like the rock legend, but I don’t know how I would feel to see my name associated to a zit-causing organism. If I believe this Live Science blog, all kinds of organisms have been name after celebrities, but Zappa comes in first: he already has a spider, a jellyfish, a mudfish and an extinct shellfish after him! It’s about time that scientists update their Ipods.