Thursday, April 18, 2013

The official state microbe?

Microbes gaining status – will they be official state representatives?

Image from

Yeast takes wheat, and grapes, and many other grains and fruits, and turns them from serviceable foods to nectar and ambrosia for the gods. The formal name for the microbe that gives both bread and beer their effervescence and intoxicating qualities is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Saccharo = sugar; myces = fungus; and cerevisiae = “of beer.” Not coincidentally, it’s the same yeast that makes wine and ethanol, and it plays a supporting role in the culturing of some types of cheese.

Now Oregon may give Saccharomyces cerevisiae some earthly status. Oregon state house representatives passed a bill to name S. cerevisiae as the official state microbe on April 16, 2013. If the state’s Senate passes the bill and the governor signs it, Oregon will be the first state with an official microbe.

Although Oregon chose S. cerevisiae because of its connection with the microbreweries for which the state has become famous, other states might choose it for their own reasons. Iowa could adopt S. cerevisiae to represent the importance in the state’s economy of the ethanol from corn by S. cerevisiae’s hard work. California could select S. cerevisiae because it makes possible both the wine and sourdough bread that bring the state renown (although the wine connection becomes more difficult to argue each year – now, all fifty states have wineries using local fruits).

Wisconsin came close to being the first with an official microbe, Lactococcus lactis, the cheese microbe. But the Wisconsin Senate disagreed, and L. lactis continues its labors on Wisconsin’s behalf without formal recognition.

Hawaii, too, has considered the wisdom of establishing a microbe, Nesiotobacter exalbescens , in the world of symbols  that states select to characterize themselves. Unlike Saccharomyces and Lactococcus, Nesiobacter’s claim to fame is its rarity, rather than its everyday usefulness. It lives only in one  super-salty lake on an obscure island, and is of greatest interest to astrobiologists. The Hawaii legislature has yet to take action on Nesiobacter, and it, like Wisconsin’s Lactococcus, must live out its microbial adventures without recognition.

You can buy a plush Saccharomyces cerevisiae for your child’s stuffed toy collection [it looks a lot like a snoutless hamster], or earrings made in the shape of budding yeasts. You can buy it dried, in the form of sourdough starters or beer or wine yeasts, or check out the website showing experiments of all sorts that rely on it. Even without the status of Oregon’s official microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae will continue to entertain and nourish us in a multitude of ways.

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