Moselio Schaechter

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May 06, 2010

State Microbes

by Elio

Lactos and cheeses

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!


Can you please tell me if there are any instances of microbes being honored outside america? Is Wisconsin the first state to do so in the world?

Elio repleis:

I am not aware of such a thing. I would hope that other countries also consider doing it.

Thanks for pointing this out.

I also nominate Lactobacillus Sanfransciscensis for California. Missouri should get the yeast. But what state should have acetobacter?

It seems to me that a state or any government body would be more receptive to a naming a microbe as "It's Official" one if you could show how the masses could enjoy it. In the post by Epicanis, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is referenced, but by it's self it's just a microbe, add Candida humilis, some flour and water and you produce the unique "stuff" that IS San Francisco Sourdough. There are wild yeasts everywhere and in sourdough culturing they all develop a symbiotic relationship with friendly bacteria. Why should San Francisco be the ONLY place for sourdough bread?

Dear Elio, I appreciate your efforts to have Lactococcus lactis as a state microbe for Wisconsin.It would also fit very well for Holland or Germany or even Europe with their many Lactococcus-fermented cheeses, sour milk and sour cream. But it is more important to bring the proper products to the comsumers without to many bacteriophage problems. So, don't be to much disappointed and just have a piece of nice cheese and a glass of good wine instead. Cheers

I would suggest going with Photorhabdus luminescens for Nevada and using Vibrio fischeri (or V. harveyi)for South Carolina. South Carolina's state flag is a palmetto tree and a crescent moon and is a real trademark of the state. Imagine replacing the moon with the crescent-shaped vibrio lighting up the night as a symbol for State Microbe Day! The beaches of Charleston, Beaufort, and Myrtle Beach are all major draws for tourists (South Carolina's leading industry) and are likely places to encounter a vibrio. We could teach kids about beneficial bacteria with this symbiotic microbe (and as an analogy to SC's symbiotic relationship with tourists), as well as how some of its cousins (V. cholerae) could be dangerous in the event of a hurricane.

those dastardly Wallstreetococcus bankeralis would make perfect New York State microbes

Hello ASM,

For the Philippines with natural resources rich in biodiversity, I have many microbes to nominate as the Country’s National Microbe from algae to bacteria to fungi but I guess two indigenous bacteria have made their mark in scientific literature. One is Streptomyces filipinensis producer of an antifungal antibiotic, an immunosuppressant and a specific histochemical stain for cholesterol. The other more popular microbe is Saccharopolyspora erythrae producer of the Eli Lily banner antibiotic – Erythromycin. I also opted to choose Vibrio fischeri for the Philippines but after having gone through the blogsite I realized that the microbe will indeed be more appropriate for Nevada where brightly shining Las Vegas is located. Hey, there’s still Vibrio harveyi, a cousin of Vibrio fischeri and equally as brightly bioluminescent and creator of the “Milky Sea” but it causes big problems here locally with its luminous vibriosis infection on prawns. I think this idea on “State Microbe” or in my case a “National Microbe” is just great and has finally come of age. If here in the Philippines, we have a National Animal, a National Bird, a National Flower, etc., why not a National Microbe! Cheers! “ Blue Light Green World”.

Elio replies:

Your suggestions point to the purpose of the exercise, which ultimately is education towards enhancing microbial literacy. You have taught us a lot already and, should there be a national microbe, that might well result in greater interest in the microbial world by children and adults not only in the Philippines but elsewhere.
Many thanks,

Not to quibble, but I would think that Deinococcus radiodurans would be a good candidate for Washington's State Microbe...given the history and reality of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

If California does not choose Saccharomyces cerevisiae, this should be a choice for Missouri [brewing industry]. A second choice for Missouri could be just YEAST.

Abe Eisenstark

My two cents

Chicago: Cyanobacteria (blue bacteria) is the candidate as "city microbe" for obvious reasons.

Virginia: Wolbachia pipientis. The bacteria that causes partenogenesis allowing reproduction of virgins

Colorado: Haloquadratum walsbyi, has the same shape and its colour is pink-red ("colorado" in spanish means "red").


various diversity of Streptomyces spp are found in soils of nepal.So,i will go for Streptomyces spp.
we need more molecular researches on them so tht wecan hav antibiotics and others from them

Dear Elio,

All good minds think alike.

Joan Bennett proposed the concept of a state microbe back when she was president of ASM. Some takes on it but at that time it did not fly. Thus it is great to see this up front again.

We had also been looking at the concept - Strep griseus for streptomycin was also our first choice, butwe have others that are delectable and home grown - i.e. NJ cultured.

Azotobacter vinelandii (Jacob Lipman) from Vineland NJ (cited in 1904 NJ Ag School report).

Thiobacillus thiooxidans (Waksman and Joffe 1922).

Streptomyces griseus for streptomycin
Streptomyces rutgersensis a nice ring for a state name. 1916 Waksman and Curtis.
Streptomyces novocaesareae 1916 Waksman and Curtis. = New Jersey.
Streptomyces lipmanii - Jacob Lipman as founder of American soil microbiology
Streptomyces fradiae - Women’s studies - after Selman Waksman mother
S. bobili after Waksman's wife (nickname)

and as Elio says, keep them coming: the sheer fun a microbial menagerie.

Whose was is that suggested the species tarryanus?

It's difficult for me to think of a single microbe representing my home country, Spain, so I would rather focus on my home region, Asturias (in NW Spain, ).

For Asturias, I propose Penicillium roqueforti, the fungus that gives a nice blue colour to Cabrales cheese ( ). This is an artisan strong cheese made in the mountains, and a very popular souvenir among tourists visiting the region. Sometimes tourists buy Cabrales cheese before tasting it (big mistake!), only to realize -back at home- that they cannot tolerate its strong aroma and flavour...

Shewanella oneidensis for New York, because it was first isolated from Lake Oneida in New York, and it's very versatile, like New Yorkers.

I would have to concur with this fellow's post for MAINE:

37) An abundant seed population in bottom sediments has set the stage for a significant bloom of the toxic alga Alexandrium fundyense in the gulf of Maine.

Since I'm an oceanographer, this marine microbe gets my vote!

Pennsylvania should claim the polio virus, because it was at (lately) that Salk developed the vaccines against it.

I think for Nevada the more appropriate luminescent bacterium is Photorhabdus luminescens, since it combines the bright lights with hidden danger.

Perhaps Borrelia burgdorferi for Connecticut - in honor of the discovery of Lyme borreliasis.

I'm going to try to think of some more, rather than preparing for talking at SCAS tomorrow - hope to get a chance to meet you there, Elio!

Two more California offerings:

Don't forget Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis ( )which gives "San Francisco" sourdough part of its distinctive flavor.

And of course Oenococcus oeni ( ) for its role in malolactic fermentation to make wines more mellow.

You know too much!

Hmmm, I would prefer to see DC represented by Geobacter metallireducens, the first Geobacter species isolated from the Potomac River, just down stream from the Nation's Capitol in 1987.

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