Not long ago, I was interviewed twice (click here and here) by Michelle Norris of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered regarding the burning issue of state microbes. The first interview was in response to the news that the state of Wisconsin’s State Assembly passed a bill proclaiming Lactococcus lactis as its state microbe. I opined that this would be a most appropriate choice, given the role of this bacterium in making cheese, a matter of obvious importance to Wisconsinites. Alas, the state Senate did not take up the bill, so L. lactis will have to wait (perhaps in a lyophilized state) for future proposals. Michelle proposed that the other states now have the chance to be the first to adopt a state microbe. Listeners sent in their nominations, some of which we discussed during the second interview.
Mentioning the quest for state microbes to microbiologists and non-microbiologists alike usually results in a chuckle. Fair enough: in today’s world, preoccupation with such ostensibly trivial matters may be frivolous. Still, there could be an educational point to this. Kids in each state, when presented with the state microbe, may want to figure out what makes the microbe special and even learn something about microbes in general. (Maybe adults, too!)
The interviews were good fun (the kinship in the names of our respective activities, STC and ATC, was a comfortable point of departure). Michelle was exceedingly friendly and helpful, likewise her off-the-air colleague Melissa Grey (author of All Cakes Considered). Both were eager to delve into matters microbial. Each time the interview lasted some 15 minutes, from which they selected the material that was aired. We chatted in a free and easy manner that I found both relaxed and pleasant.
Here is a list of nominations from NPR listeners and readers of New Scientist, as well as some of our own. Perhaps microbiologists in each state will find it worthwhile to come up with their choices. Those with political connections to state legislators should pay special heed. I omit suggestions of pathogenic agents (with a couple of exceptions), on the supposition that state legislatures would not take kindly to them.
- Alabama: Karenia brevis, a dinoflagellate, aka the Red Tide Alga. A shoo-in if you think of the Crimson Tide. (Jenny Ridings, New Scientist)
- Alaska: The permafrost bacterium Carnobacterium pleistocenum found in 35,000 year-old ice. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Arizona: (1) Thiobacillus ferrooxidans for its role in copper leaching. Arizona is the top copper-producing state in the US. (Elio) (2) Penicillum for the penicillin it makes, to be used to cure gunshot wounds due to the recent illegal immigrant law. (NPR listener)
- California: (1) Saccharomyces cerevisiae, for its importance in making wine. (Elio) (Also suggested for several other states) (2) The city of Los Angeles got two nominations for a “city microbe:” Clostridium botulinum, the source of botox. (NPR listener; Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Florida: (1) Retirement communities in Florida would appreciate the 250-million-year-old Lazarus bacillus Bacillus permians. Note that there is far from universal agreement about the longevity of this bacterium. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist) (2) The Sunshine State can share its ample sunlight and coastal waters with a photosynthetic marine cyanobacterium, e. g., Synechococcus elongatus. (Elio)
- District of Columbia: Cupriavidus metallidurans (formerly Ralstonia metallidurans), the gold mining bug that turns soluble gold into nuggets. They could use it there. See our previous post. (Elio)
- Hawaii: Another state claiming Lactococcus lactis, here fermenting taro into poi. (Merry)
- Indiana: Zymomonas mobilis, a bacterium that produces ethanol very efficiently. Indy 500 cars run on ethanol. (AmoebaMike, New Scientist)
- Iowa: Bradyrhizobium japonicum, a nitrogen fixing symbiont of soybean plants. Iowa is one of the top soybean producers in the US. (Elio)
- Kansas: MRSA, for illustrating evolution in action. (several NPR listeners)
- New Jersey: (1) Streptomyces griseus, the bacterium that makes streptomycin, a pioneer antibiotic discovered at Rutgers University by Selman Waxsman. (Elio) (2) Sewage methanogenic bacteria, for New Jersey’s famous marshland garbage dumps. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- New Mexico: The “indestructible bacterium” Deinococcus radiodurans that probably survived the Trinity A bomb test carried out in New Mexico in 1945. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Nevada: Home of the neon glow in Las Vegas gets the flashing light of Vibrio fischeri. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Rhode Island (1) Epulopiscium fischelsoni, the biggest known bacterium (never mind Thiomargarita) for the smallest state in the Union. (NPR listener) (2) The nanobacteria (Ed. Note: assuming they exist). (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Texas: The oil eating Synthropus may be useful for cleanup of oil spills. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Utah: The salt-loving Haloarcula for the Great Salt Lake. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Virginia: The Epstein Barr virus or kissing bug because “Virginia is for lovers.” (NPR listener)
- Washington: Here they may appreciate the rain-making bacterium Pseudomonas syringae. (Rowan Hooper, news editor, New Scientist)
- Wisconsin: Lactococcus lactis, the essential cheese-maker. (Wisconsin State Assembly)
- Wyoming: Thermus aquaticus, which was isolated from a Yellowstone hot spring and went on to make a great living as the source of the Taq polymerase. (Elio)
Can you think of others? Keep them coming!