The state of Wisconsin received considerable media publicity last spring when the Wisconsin Assembly voted to select a state microbe. Not surprisingly, the number one cheese-producing state, where Green Bay Packers fans call themselves "cheese heads," chose Lactococcus lactis. This versatile bacterium is essential for making cheddar, Colby, and other Wisconsin cheese specialties.
What about other states? At Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, we have considered a number of possible candidates for our own state microbe. Streptomyces lipmanii was named after Jacob Lipman, the founder of American soil microbiology and longtime New Jersey resident. Streptomyces griseus, producer of streptomycin, helped earn Selman Waksman a Nobel Prize. Streptomyces fradiae (named after Waksman's mother) and S. bobili (named after Waksman's wife) honor the role that women play in the careers of "great men." Or perhaps members of the New Jersey state legislature in Trenton would prefer Streptomyces novocaesareae. (For those whose Latin is dimming-or nonexistent-this translates to "Streptomyces newjerseyi.")
The publicity surrounding the Wisconsin microbe reminded J.W.B. of her year as ASM president in 1990-91. Not long before, California had adopted the banana slug as their state invertebrate. If slugs could get such good publicity, Joan figured it was time for ASM to bring similar fame to microbes. She envisioned winemaking states like California and New York choosing Saccharomyces cerevisiae and brewing states like Missouri (home of Anheuser- Busch) choosing Saccharomyces carlsbergensis. Mining states like Colorado might go for Thiobacillus ferooxidans while soybean-growing states like Iowa might credit the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Bradyrhizobium japonicum. Illinois might honor Penicillium chrysogenum- a strain of this species was isolated from a moldy cantaloupe found in a Peoria market and is now the progenitor of highyielding penicillin-producing strains used worldwide.
The brief campaign for state microbes interested members of the ASM Council Policy Committee and several important ASM members, who were quick to point out that some states were best known for unsavory microbes. For example, Louisiana had a historically important center for the treatment and study of Hansen's disease at Carville, but it was unlikely that the state legislature would want to sponsor Mycobacterium leprae. Howard T. Ricketts gained fame for isolating Rickettsia rickettsii from the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, but did Montana want to be associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever? Connecticut with Lyme disease? Pennsylvania with Legionnaires' disease? Joan abandoned her campaign when former ASM President Al Balows said, "Let's give Neisseria gonorrhoeae to Nevada."
P. S. At the 2010 General Meeting in San Diego, Moselio Schaechter spoke in the president's forum about extending the idea of state microbes to cities and suggested Clostridium botulinum, producer of Botox, for Los Angeles.
Joan W. Bennett
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, N.J.