New & Noteworthy

Finally, Microbes Get the Recognition They Deserve

April 15, 2013

Anyone reading the SGD blog knows that the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is an amazing little organism. Not only does it give us bread, wine and beer, but it also is an invaluable tool in understanding human biology. It has helped us better understand cancer, Alzheimer’s, and lots of other diseases, not to mention basic biological processes like gene regulation and cell cycle control. This little one celled beast is the rock star of biology!

And now, finally, government is starting to take notice. In a 58-0 vote, the Oregon House recently decided that yeast should be the official state microbe. If the Senate and the governor agree, then yeast will be getting the recognition it deserves. Take that, C. elegans, Drosophila, and all of you other model organisms!

beer bubbles

Yeast is getting recognition for beer, but it is so much more!

Unfortunately, this recognition is not for yeast’s scientific value. Craft beer making is huge in Oregon, and designating yeast as the official state microbe is a way of celebrating this important state industry. Given all of yeast’s other important contributions to the well-being of us all, this feels a bit like celebrating Hugh Jackman for his role as Wolverine in X-Men while ignoring his roles on Broadway or his role as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Yes, he was great in X-Men, but that is an incomplete picture of him as an actor. Same thing with yeast.

Yeast should be celebrated for wine and bread, for medicines like anti-malarials and antifungals, for the deep biological understanding it has given us, and even for its possible future as a source for biofuels. Still, this honor is way better than nothing, and at least yeast will be the first microbe officially recognized by a state. Well, it will be if Oregon hurries.

Hawaii is voting on an official state microbe too, Flavobacterium akiainvivens. This bacterium was discovered by a high school student during a science fair project and is only found in the state of Hawaii. The Oregon senate should vote soon, or yeast will be the second officially recognized microbe.

Of course, the bill could die in the Senate. This is what happened in Wisconsin back in 2009 when their House passed a bill making Lactococcus lactis the official state microbe. This bacterium is important for making Wisconsin’s famous cheese but it wasn’t important enough for the Senate to approve it as Wisconsin’s official state microbe. Hopefully Oregon won’t make the same mistake with yeast.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics