A State Microbe For Cheese-Crazed Wisconsin?

A bill to designate lactococcus lactis the official state microbe passed the Wisconsin Assembly yesterday, and now awaits action in the state senate. Lactococcus lactis is the bacterium used to make cheese, and Wisconsin makes a lot of cheese. For more on the microbe, Michele Norris talks with Elio Schaechter, a microbiologist and visiting scholar at UC San Diego.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Wisconsin has a state flower, the wood violet. It has several state animals, too: the badger and the dairy cow among them. And soon it could also have a state microbe. A bill to designate Lactococcus lactis the official state microbe passed the Wisconsin Assembly yesterday. And it now awaits action in the state senate. Lactococcus lactis, in case you haven't figured it out, is the bacterium used to make cheese. For more on this tiny bug, we turn to Elio Schaechter. He's a microbiologist and adjunct professor at UC San Diego, and perhaps more importantly, he's the writer behind the microbe blog called Small Things Considered.

Great name for that blog.

Mr. ELIO SCHAECHTER (Microbiologist, Visiting Scholar, University of California San Diego): Well, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Can you tell us a little bit more about Lactococcus lactis?

Mr. SCHAECHTER: Well, it's a bacterium, and it looks like little chains of pearls under the microscope. When you start with milk, and you want to make cheese, the first thing you want to do is make curds out of the milk, and Lactococcus is great at doing that because it takes the sugar in the milk, lactose, and converts it into lactic acid, and this being an acid, the low pH makes the milk curdle.

This is the first thing you do with towards making cheese. You gather the curds, and now you add other bacteria or molds, and you make things like Roquefort cheese or brie or cheddar. But it often starts with Lactococcus.

NORRIS: So this seems to be a perfect bug for Wisconsin.

Mr. SCHAECHTER: Absolutely. I can see that it's lightly amusing, but let me tell you from a microbiologist's point of view, this isn't just fun. The state of Wisconsin could do very well without its state animal, the badger, or without the state dance, the polka. But it couldn't do without bacteria because none of us could.

NORRIS: You know, you say this is amusing to some, but if you spend any time in Wisconsin, you realize that there's nothing amusing about cheese there. They take it very seriously. Just tune in to a Green Bay Packers game and see all those people with cheese on their heads.

Mr. SCHAECHTER: Well, they also might sport a little flag that says Lactococcus is here to stay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: If this bill actually passes, Wisconsin will most likely be the only state in the union to have an official microbe, but do you think other states should follow suit, and do you have any suggestions?

Mr. SCHAECHTER: Why not? Sure, well, I live in California, and I strongly urge California to adopt yeast. Without yeast, we wouldn't have bread, and we wouldn't have beer, and certainly we wouldn't have wine. Now, this is important to California, all right.

NORRIS: Elio Schaechter, thanks so much.

Mr. SCHAECHTER: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Elio Schaechter is an adjunct professor at UC San Diego, and listeners, we want to hear from you. What should your state microbe be? You can write to us at npr.org. Just click on contact us, and please include microbe in your subject line.

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