Propionibacterium zappae

"She used to knock me out, until her face broke out"


"Interkingdom Transfer of the Acne-Causing Agent, Propionibacterium acnes, from Human to Grapevine'*.

The paper of this name, written by Andrea Campisano, Lino Ometto, Stephane Compant, Michael Pancher, Livio Antonielli, Sohail Yousaf, Claudio Varotto, Gianfranco Anfora, Ilaria Pertot, Angela Sessitsch, and Omar Rota-Stabelli, reports the 'surprising and, to our knowledge, unique example of horizontal interkingdom transfer of a human opportunistic pathogen (Propionibacterium acnes) to a crop plant (the domesticated grapevine Vitis vinifera L.)' - in other words, they found a bacterium that causes acne in humans which appears to have migrated to grapes!

How did this happen? Well, 'Bacteria,' the paper tells us, 'are highly adaptable microorganisms routinely found as symbionts or pathogens on plants and animals alike . . . Humans, like most organisms, have established a long-lasting cohabitation with a variety of microbes, including pathogens and gut-associated bacteria.

'Studies which have investigated the dynamics of such associations revealed numerous cases of bacterial host switches from domestic animals to humans. Much less is, however, known about the exchange of microbial symbionts between humans and plants . . .'

The writers theorise that this move occurred around 7,000 years ago, 'an age highly compatible with the first domestication of the grapevine and a time when human intensive practices, such as the grafting and pruning of vines, may have led to the transfer to its new host,' according to a press release on the paper, dated 18 February, 2014.

It's not entirely clear what benefit accrues to the grapevine from this adaptation, but that's why the discovery of Propionibacterium zappae is unique. 'Our results represent the first evidence of human to plant horizontal transfer of an obligate symbiont and open new perspectives on the occurrence and significance of bacteria host transfer between humans and domesticated plants.'

As for the naming, Propionibacterium zappae is 'named after the Italian term 'zappa' [hoe] as well as a tribute to eccentric** composer Frank Zappa, to highlight the unexpected and unconventional habitat of this P. acnes type.)' According to the press release, co-authors Andrea Campisano and Omar Rota-Stabelli are quoted as saying 'This bacteria is so unconventional in its behavior, and its new habitat is so unexpected that we thought of Frank Zappa. Indeed, at the time we were discovering it, we were both playing a Zappa album in our cars.'


* Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution 31(5):1059-1065.

** The press release quoted in the article used the word 'eclectic' instead, which is perhaps preferable!

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