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How Bizarre

One giant leap for zit-causing microbes

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3:30pm, April 16, 2014

ODD ALLIES  Domesticated grapevines play host to the bacterium P. acnes, which relies on the plant for essential DNA repairs.

Magazine issue: Vol. 185 No. 8, May 3, 2014
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Around 7,000 years ago, a bacterium that lives on humans and causes acne leaped to a very different host: domesticated grapevines. Since then, an essential DNA-repair gene in the microbe, Propionibacterium acnes, has mutated and no longer functions. Without the gene, the microbe is unable to function on its own and appears to rely on the grapevine for these DNA repairs. This is the first report of such a symbiosis between a plant and a microbe that’s typically associated with animals, says microbiologist Andrea Campisano of Italy’s Edmund Mach Foundation.

The researchers named the grapevine version of the microbe P. acnes type Zappae, in a nod to both musician Frank Zappa and the microbe’s agricultural significance; zappa means hoe in Italian. The work was reported in February in Molecular Biology and Evolution. While this may be the first recorded human-to-plant transfer of this type, it’s not the first time Zappa has been honored Linnean-style. At least four organisms, including a spider and a mudskipper, bear his name. 

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