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Beautifying bugs. A new study of P. acnes bacteria (inset) finds that some of its strains may cause acne—but one strain may guard the skin and keep it healthy.

Hemera/Thinkstock; (Inset) Dezhi Kang

Got Pimples? You May Need Better Bacteria

If you were plagued by pimples in your teen years, you may have bacteria to blame—but not all of them. Researchers have found that not all strains of the bacteria commonly associated with acne are created equal: Some may cause problem skin, but one appears to protect the skin and keep it healthy. The discovery may help dermatologists develop new, strain-specific treatments for acne, a common but potentially disfiguring disorder.

Although acne is practically a rite of passage—more than 80% of Americans suffer from the skin condition, which can cause pimples, cysts, and red, inflamed skin, at some point in their lives—it's not entirely understood. Past studies have pointed to Propionibacterium acnes, a bacterium that lives in the skin's follicles and pores, as a potential culprit, but that work had not precisely revealed its role. So molecular biologist Huiying Li of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues decided to take a closer look at the microbe.

Armed with over-the-counter pore-cleansing strips, they sampled bacteria from the noses of 101 people, 49 of whom had acne and 52 of whom had clear skin. Then, they examined the bacterial DNA, looking for patterns or variations in the microbes' genes that would help them identify specific strains of bacteria.

Whether they had clear or pimply skin, all the study participants sported similar abundances of P. acnes living in their pores, but not all of the strains were the same. The researchers found a number of different strains of the microbe, including 66 that had never been identified before. When they sequenced the genomes of each strain and compared them, they discovered that two of the strains, RT4 and RT5, were found predominantly in people with acne—and that one strain, RT6, was found almost exclusively in people with clear skin. Because this "good" strain contains genes known to fight off bacterial viruses and other potentially harmful microbes, the researchers suspect that it may actively ward off the "bad" strains that are associated with disease, thereby keeping skin healthy.

"Just like good strains of bacteria in yogurt, for example, are good for the gut, these good strains of P. acnes could be good for the skin," says Li, whose team reports the findings today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Acne is now often treated with antibiotics or other antimicrobial drugs. The team suggests that further studies of strain differences could lead to probiotic treatments for acne, which instead boost or supply beneficial microbes. Lotions or medications that target bad strains of bacteria or foster good ones could offer a gentler and more effective way to ease problem skin, Li says.

"This is a great study—it was very carefully done, it addressed an important organism in the human microbiome, and it produced some very interesting results," says Martin Blaser, a physician and microbiologist at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City. He notes that the work has some limitations: It doesn't prove that the bad strains of P. acnes are actually causing acne, and it doesn't explain why some people carry certain P. acnes strains and others don't. "But they found some strong associations," he says, "and this is a good beginning."