New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill last week officially designating the state microbe, Streptomyces griseus.
What is this tiny creature, and how do state plants, animals and even microorganisms earn their honors?
In the case of Streptomyces griseus, Jersey scientists spent years trying to get it the recognition they say it deserves.
“The first comment on this was: ‘Why do we need a state germ?’” said Rutgers University microbiologist Max Haggblom. He was among the advocates for Streptomyces griseus. “It’s like, no, it’s not a germ. This is actually a friendly bacteria, and that saves lives.”
Millions of lives, he said. Researchers studied it to develop the antibiotic streptomycin in the 1940s.
Haggblom hopes the designation gets people thinking differently about microbes.
“We live in a microbial world. They are essential for life on earth. We would not survive without microbes that fix carbon dioxide,” he said. “They degrade our waste … keep us healthy. And yes, there are a few germs that make us sick, but they are really the exception.”
In 2013, Oregon was the first state to honor a microbe, a type of yeast fungi used in craft beer. But Rutgers scientists stressed that Streptomyces griseus is the first bacteria to be so honored.
Jeff Boyd, another Rutgers scientist, said you need a microscope to see it — Streptomyces griseus looks a bit like “spaghetti after it’s been boiled.” But you can smell it, sort of.
“It’s a microbe that lives in almost all the soil around the earth,” he said. “Right before it rains, you can smell that soil smell. This same microbe produces that chemical.”
The pair said Streptomyces griseus finally earned its designation after a colleague caught the ear of a state senator at a party. John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics in New Brunswick, said lucky connections like that are one way to do it.
Another way? Recruit some grade-schoolers.
“Schools will mount petition drives and letters to the media and visit their state legislator to try to impress upon them why this particular thing should be, you know, should be made official,” Weingart said. They’ll organize petitions, write letters and put together arguments in favor of this frog or that pine tree.
But some designations are tied to advocacy or awareness.
Delaware, for instance, has just made the rescue dog its official state canine, which replaced the more specific golden retriever after a three-year run.
And in Pennsylvania, the Eastern hellbender — North America’s largest salamander — has just taken up the mantle of state amphibian. Its numbers have taken a sharp dive over the years as natural habitats have been degraded.
But most often, Weingart said, getting a favorite flower or turtle named the state flower or turtle is basically just a good-natured civics lesson for youngsters.
“The minor, I think minor, downside of it — but I used to have a colleague who felt strongly about this — is that it has the potential to make the legislative process seem easier than it really is,” he said.
No one was arguing a rival microbe should get the honor. But Weingart points out New Jersey is one of the few states without a state song.
Maybe between Bon Jovi and the Boss, it’s too difficult to build consensus there.