Scientists have long known that the bacterium Propionibacterium
acnes (P. acnes) plays a leading role in the development of acne
vulgaris, the scourge afflicting some 80% of teenagers and many
adults as well. A normally harmless microbe that lives in the
hair follicles of every person, P. acnes helps cause acne when
the follicles become plugged with sebum, a natural oil produced
by the body.
Recently a team of German scientists, led by microbiologist Dr.
Holger Brueggemann, mapped the genetic code of the P. acnes
microbe. They discovered that it has a circular chromosome with
2,333 genes, many of which had surprising destructive abilities.
"We were astonished to see how many genes were involved in
degrading the human tissue," said Dr. Brueggemann.
For example, the researchers found that P. acnes contains
enzymes similar to those in so-called "flesh-eating" bacteria
that destroy human tissue. It also has enzymes that break down
the skin and use it as its food supply. It contains genes that
secrete substances that kill competitors, like harmful bacteria
and fungi, in much the same manner as pathogens like
tuberculosis and diphtheria. And it uses a defense tactic known
as "phase variation" that helps it escape attack by the human
New Acne Treatments May Be Possible
What does this mean for acne sufferers?
Scientists have long believed that acne results when pores
become plugged by bits of dead, flaking skin and sebum. These
plugged pores fill with oil, which the P. acnes microbe then
feeds on while releasing certain chemicals and enzymes. These
enzymes attract white blood cells, causing inflammation, redness
and pimples we call acne. Adolescents are more often afflicted
by acne because during that age period more of this oil is
produced, thanks to hormonal changes in the body at that time.
Most traditional acne treatments today are designed to either
kill bacteria or to prevent pores from becoming plugged.
However, P. acnes has developed resistance to many of the
antibiotics used to treat acne, leading scientist to seek newer,
more effective treatments.
This new discovery by Dr. Brueggemann's research team will lead
to a better understanding of the P. acnes bacterium and how it
operates in causing or aiding the outbreak of acne. This
knowledge may well lead to new approaches to treating acne by
better targetting the enzyme systems of P. acnes and relieving
the pain and suffering of teens and adults with acne.
About the Author
Diane Darling, COTA/L, is a licensed and certified occupational
therapy assistant who works with learning-challenged children.
She also has a keen interest in issues of skin care and acne,
and maintains the Treating Acne website located at