ZapA (Proteus mirabilis)

What's New in Baltimore?

Microbiology is not the most accessible branch of science for the layman: lots of guys in white coats peering into microscopes - it looks good, but what exactly are they doing in there?

Important stuff, of course - and it's the microbiologists we turn to when we want to find out what's making us sick, as in the E. coli (Escherichia coli) outbreak which has recently been in the papers in the U.K. Not a million miles from E. coli in the scheme of things is another bacterium Proteus mirabilis, and not a million miles from Baltimore is the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, where boffin Bob Belas was looking into what exactly makes Proteus mirabilis such a nasty case in the area of urinary tract infections.

Proteus mirabilis - Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?

Proteus mirabilis is, according to the paper Bob wrote with colleagues Christopher Wassif and Diana Cheek,

"a bacterium that is often found in soil, water, and the intestinal tract of many mammals, including humans . . . [It] is not a common cause of urinary tract infection . . . [but] infects a much higher proprtion of patents with complicated urinary tracts, that is, those with functional or anatomical abnormalities or with chronic instrumentation, such as long-term urinary catheterization."
[Molecular Analysis of a Metalloprotease from Proteus mirabilis , Journal of Bacteriology, Vol. 177, No. 20, Oct, 1995]

As if a bacterium wasn't small enough to start with, Bob and his team decided to try and find out what made Proteus mirabilis so virulent, by looking at even smaller things inside it, proteins called proteases (which are designed to attack our defence systems and render them useless against bacterial assault) - and then even smaller things inside that, the genes that actually produce the proteins.

After much peering into microscopes, they found what they were looking for - except the particular gene they were working on didn't have a name. Traditionally, these things have 2 or 3 letters at the front, and a capital letter at the end: lots of others are mentioned in the paper, such as IgA, PrtD, and so on, and Bob came up with the cunning idea of calling this ZapA (pronounced 'Zappa'), ensuring that FZ's name would be forever immortalised in the world of very small things, as well as very large. In the Acknowledgements section of the paper, it says:

"We especially thank the late Frank Zappa for inspiration and assistance with genetic nomenclature."

ZapA, Bob told me, is "part of a family of genes called ZapA thru ZapE (kind of hard to push Gails, Dweezils, Moonunits and the like past the scientific peer review)"! [email to author]]

The ZapA from the Black Lagoon

I should add that it also says, in the Discussion section of the paper that "ZapA mutants . . . are presently being constructed" - a hitherto undisclosed secret project which can only bring delight at the prospect of Zappa Mutants multiplying rapidly and swamping the control rooms of the world's recording studios. Thanks, Bob!

For more information on ZapA, see the Science page.

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