Oregon, Hawaii May Name Official State Microbes

S. cerevisiae, which helps get you drunk (image: Mogana Das Murtey and Patchamuthu Ramasamy, CC 3.0 via InTechOpen.com and Wikipedia)

If House Concurrent Resolution 12 passes, Oregon could become the first state in the Union to declare an official state microbe.

Specifically, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as “brewer’s yeast” or “baker’s yeast,” for reasons you can probably guess. “It is perhaps the most useful yeast,” says Wikipedia, “having been instrumental to winemaking, baking and brewing since ancient times.” It’s also highly useful to scientists. Is there anything this plucky microbe can’t do? Sure, it’s everybody’s favorite eukaryote, but why is Oregon thinking about adopting it?

The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River), whose district includes a number of wineries and microbreweries, according to The Oregonian. Johnson praised S. cerevisiae when he presented the bill last week, noting that it was largely responsible for the success of companies like Full Sail Brewing Co. “It’s just an example of what this microbe has been involved in,” Johnson said, doing his best to convince members of the Rules Committee they should get excited about yeast. At least one committee member seemed skeptical.

“Is there any other microbe that anybody else likes better than this one that is in competition with your microbe?” asked Rep. Vicki Berger.

“I’m not aware of any other microbes that generate $2.4 billion for the state economy,” answered Johnson. I don’t think you’ve answered my question, sir, so I’ll ask it again: Is there a competing microbe?!

The report suggested that Berger might be concerned about this because of an ugly fight that broke out in 2009 when she tried to have the marionberry (no relation to the unpleasant D.C. politician) declared the official berry. Those affiliated with other, less favored berries protested, and the legislature eventually dropped the plan. But for now, apparently persuaded that they were not about to spark a war between the various microbe lobbies, Berger and the other committee members sent the bill to the House floor.

Oregon will have to act fast if it wants to be first, though, because a similar bill in Hawaii has already passed the House in that state and been referred to the Senate. That involves a different microbe, Flavobacterium akiainvivens, which lives on the Hawaiian akia shrub. What does that microbe do? Lives on a shrub, as far as I can tell. Unlike Oregon, Hawaii didn’t start with an awesome microbe and decide to make it official. According to the legislation, some Hawaiians decided they needed an official state microbe and went out to find one. This one apparently fit the bill.

As you may recall, Wisconsin had a chance to be the first state with an official microbe back in 2009, when that state’s assembly passed a bill elevating Lactococcus lactis to official status, in recognition of its heroic role in creating cheese. Ultimately, however, the state senate failed to concur.