Why Name Acne Bacteria After Frank Zappa? Hint: Why Not?

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Microbiologists have named an acne-causing bacteria after rock legend Frank Zappa, because that's what microbiologists do. Cloud2013 / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A newly discovered acne bacteria that infects vineyards has been named in honor of rock legend Frank Zappa — a move offering a glimpse into the weirdness of scientific naming.

Drs. Andrea Campisano and Omar Rota-Stabelli, Italian researchers and authors of a study on the discovery, said in a press release that the name came to them naturally — a relic from Sheik Yerbouti, the 1979 album whose instant cult status purportedly made a puzzled Zappa take an interest in anthropology. “This bacteria is so unconventional in its behavior, and its new habitat is so unexpected that we thought of Frank Zappa,” they told reporters. “Indeed, at the time we were discovering it, we were both playing a Zappa album in our cars.”

The specific piece of inspiration — “Sand-blasted zits” — appears toward the end of the track “Jewish Princess,” which (understandably) drew excoriating criticism from the Anti-Defamation League when it was released.

If we can forget, for a moment, the likelihood of two microbiologists listening to the same Frank Zappa album in separate cars during a joint discovery, we will find that the study also sheds some light on an often overlooked area of scientific discovery: naming. The buttoned-up nomenclature first established by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, may give the impression that all science-related names have to be Latin and boring. Not so.

For example, did you know that your body is a potential battle field for Sonic Hedgehog and Robotnikinin? It’s true. Sonic hedgehog, a spiky-looking protein, runs a constant risk of being thwarted by Robotnikin, a potential inhibitor of the signaling pathway. The Times Union has more:

“Sonic was named as such by the Harvard researcher (Cliff Tabin) because two previous gene family members had been named Indian and dessert hedgehog based on the way fruit flies looked when these gene were mutated,” they write. “His kids were playing a lot of sonic at the time he discovered his gene (circa 1991) so he went with that name for the 3rd family member.”

Other examples abound. The genes “Grim” and “Reaper” guide cells through apoptosis, or programmed cell death. The mutation “Casanova” causes zebrafish to be born with two hearts. And let’s not forget “Cheap Date” — a mutation that causes flies to appear drunk after consuming very small amounts of alcohol. All in good taste. 

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