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Small Wonder

Wisconsin has a state dance (the polka), a state fossil (the trilobite), a state beverage (milk, of course) and 18 other official state symbols. But a group of CALS bacteriologists say that honor roll neglects a major player in the Badger state’s quality of life: Lactococcus lactis.

Not familiar with the name? You probably know the bacterium better by its handiwork—namely, turning milk into Cheddar cheese. Cultures of Lactococcus lactis are at work in virtually every dairy plant in the state, driving an industry that contributes some $18 billion to the state’s economy each year.

That kind of impact warrants recognition, argues Rick Gourse, chair of the bacteriology department. Gourse and colleagues are pushing a state bill to designate Lactococcus as the official state microbe, which would make Wisconsin the first state to bestow such distinction on a microorganism. Sponsored by Rep. Gary Hebl, the bill passed the State Assembly in the spring but was not considered by the Senate. Hebl is pledging to reintroduce the bill during this fall’s legislative session.

“I thought this idea seemed frivolous at first,” Gourse admits. “I soon realized that it presents a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of microbiological research for understanding and preventing disease. It also highlights the positive role of microbes in key Wisconsin industries, including cheese, brewing and bioenergy.”

Supporters also hope a state microbe would help counter public fears about germs, which often only get attention as causes of disease or illness. But if the Assembly’s first hearings on the bill are any indication, there’s still a lot of room for education on that point.

“During a presentation (about the bill), someone said, ‘I want to wash my hands, thinking about all these germs,’” recalls Michelle Rondon, a bacteriology faculty associate involved in the effort. “That’s exactly the kind of thinking we are trying to change. The vast majority of microorganisms are either innocuous or beneficial, and Lactococcus lactis is an excellent reminder of that fact.”

—Nicole Miller MS’06