No State Microbe For Wisconsin

An update on a piece of news we brought listeners almost two weeks ago: Lactococcus lactis, the little cheese-maker microbe, has failed to become the Wisconsin state microbe. Though it passed the state Assembly, the bill that would make Lactococcus the state microbe was not picked up by the Senate. Now, tantalizingly, this gives the other 49 states a chance to become the first to have a state microbe. We asked listeners for suggestions, and microbiologist Elio Schaechter — who writes the microbe blog Small Things Considered — is back to weigh in on them, and offer Michele Norris some of his own suggestions.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now an update to a story from Wisconsin we brought you about two weeks ago: lactococcus lactis will not become that state's microbe, or at least not this year. The busy little bacterium is used to make cheese, and while the Wisconsin assembly felt worthy, the state Senate did not. It failed to vote on the state microbe measure.

Tantalizingly and, yes, we know, farfetchedly, this gives the other 49 states a chance to become the first to have an official microbe. And you, our listeners, have brought us a few nominations.

Joining me to review some of those nominations and perhaps make a few of his own is Elio Schaechter. He is a microbiologist and an adjunct professor at San Diego State University. He's also the writer behind the blog, Small Things Considered, so we couldn't resist having him back on the program.

Welcome again.

Dr. ELIO SCHAECHTER (Adjunct Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, San Diego State University; Writer, Small Things Considered): Lovely to be back.

NORRIS: Okay. Here is a nomination from the Old Dominion. Caroline Iddings(ph) of Annandale writes: Because Virginia is for lovers, mononucleosis seems to be perfect.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Well, I don't know. Mononucleosis is the virus that causes mononucleosis and it's an unpleasant condition. So, even though it's called the kissing bug - and that's maybe why she had this in mind - I don't think it's going to go through the state legislature very easily.

NORRIS: Okay. Well, let's go north to Rhode Island where Bill Crawl(ph) of Portsmouth suggests epulopiscium.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Ah, that's a good one. Epulopiscium is a strange bacterium which ranks just about as the largest bacterium known on earth. So it's appropriate for the smallest state to have the biggest bacterium, don't you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: That would make sense, yes.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: If you take a regular bacterium and you blow it up the size of a mouse, that bug would be the size of a blue whale. That's how it is.

NORRIS: Okay. So, truly, a jumbo shrimp bug for a little giant state, that's what Mr. Crawl says.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Exactly.

NORRIS: Do you mind if I throw in a couple of states to see what ideas...

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Oh, boy.

NORRIS: ...you might have for an official microbe?

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Oh boy, here we go.

NORRIS: Let's begin with Nevada.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Nevada could use a bug which is very resistant to radiation. And since they did atomic tests in Nevada, that would be the bug. It's called deinococcus. It is so resistant to radiation that it will be around no matter what happens in this earth.

NORRIS: So a post-nuclear bug for Nevada.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: A post-nuclear bug.

NORRIS: How about the Garden State, New Jersey?

Dr. SCHAECHTER: New Jersey has the distinction of having been the place where a lot of antibiotics were discovered. The bug that makes a lot of antibiotic is called streptomyces, and it will be very appropriate for the Garden State.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm. How about the big old state of Texas?

Dr. SCHAECHTER: There is a bug which eats oil - syntrophus. With all the oil that's produced, many oil spills, and the way of getting rid of oil as a pollutant will be to use this bug. They probably are using it anyhow.

NORRIS: I was just going to say, it's of great use right now to deal with that great big oil spill.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: I'm not sure it's a marine bug. But there are marine bugs that use oils, and so they're probably growing on the oil. In other words, they're reproducing and making more of them, which in time it will be the way to get rid of the oil.

NORRIS: Elio Schaechter, I wonder what it would be like to take a walk in the woods with you. Are you always thinking about microbes that are surrounding us?

Dr. SCHAECHTER: I wouldn't say all the time, but when I go in the woods I'm amazed at how much microbial activity I see and smell. The smell of garden soil, this little bacteria called actinomyces, the decay that takes place on the forest floor is due to fungi and bacteria. So they're all over us. People think of microbes being germs and bad things.

In reality, the overwhelming number of microbes on earth are very helpful. In fact, they're essential.

NORRIS: Microbes are your friends.

Dr. SCHAECHTER: Yes, they are. They are indeed.

NORRIS: Well, we're glad that you're our friend and come back and talk to us again. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

Elio Schaechter is a microbiologist and the blogger of Small Things Considered.

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