Not Your Average Germ: New Jersey Considers a State Microbe

Does New Jersey need an official microbe? When it’s as beneficial a bug as Streptomyces griseus, why not?

Illustration by Michael Robertson

Even the most fervent Jersey boosters have to admit that the Garden State lacks some crucial elements. A new tunnel under the Hudson River for commuters to New York would be nice. Shorter lines at the DMV. More NJ Transit trains. And, of course, a state microbe.

You’re thinking, New Jersey has no state microbe?  How is it possible that a state with so many microbes hasn’t added one of them to its roster of official symbols? After all, we have a state dinosaur, and it’s been extinct for 65 million years.  But before you voice that displeasure to your state representative, take heart: By the time this article sees print, the Legislature may well have voted to add a deserving microbe to a list of state flora and fauna that includes the beloved state animal (horse), bird (eastern goldfinch), bug (honeybee), fish (brook trout), flower (violet), tree (northern red oak), reptile (bog turtle), and yes, dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii). 

When I first learned that our representatives in Trenton were entertaining—and likely to pass—a bill to establish a state microbe, I was dubious.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, state pensions are underfunded, and our economy still hasn’t fully bounced back from the Great Recession of 2008.  Shouldn’t we be attacking these more pressing problems before elevating the status of a germ?

But then I spoke with Jeffrey Boyd, who is part of a team of Rutgers microbiologists doggedly pressing for the state’s official adoption of the microbe known as Streptomyces griseus. Their campaign began a decade ago when Douglas Eveleigh, an éminence grise on the Rutgers faculty, co-authored an opinion piece in a scholarly journal promoting the idea that every state should have its own symbolic microbe.  It was Eveleigh’s feeling that the lay public didn’t appreciate the importance of microbes. “The problem,” Boyd says, “is that everyone thinks of them as something negative like, ‘They’re germs!  They’re bad!  I need to wash my hands all the time because there are microbes all over them!

In fact, he explains, the overwhelming majority of microbes have a positive effect on our lives, from the billions of good bugs that inhabit the human gut to those, like S. griseus itself, that form the basis for many of the antibiotics that protect us from, well, bacteria.

Microbiologist John Warhol, a member of the Rutgers team, made a similar argument in an elevator pitch—literally on an elevator—to state Senator Samuel D. Thompson (R-Old Bridge). Thompson signed on, and the bill was born—and not a day too soon.  We’ve already been beaten to the punch by Oregon, the first state to declare an official microbe (Saccharomyces cerevisiae, aka brewer’s yeast, the bug that launched 10 million Oregonian craft beers).

Not to dis Oregon, but our microbe has done a lot more than fuel hipster hangovers. In 1943, a team led by Rutgers microbiologist Selman Waksman announced that it had dug up some S. griseus from the Jersey soil and synthesized it into the world’s second antibiotic (the first was penicillin). Streptomycin was the first drug to effectively treat tuberculosis and has subsequently been wielded in the treatment of endocarditis, rat bite fever, plague and other highly unpleasant afflictions.  In 1952, it won Waksman, who coined the term antibiotic, a Nobel Prize.  

Riding what appears to be a microbial wave, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Kingston), a physicist and supporter of the bill, attended the December opening of a permanent exhibit at the Liberty Science Center titled “Microbes Rule!” Zwicker hopes that enshrining S. griseus as the state microbe—which, he notes, has saved hundreds of millions of lives—“will inspire the next great boy or girl scientist from New Jersey who is going to discover something that is as critically important as Streptomyces has been.”

Take that, brewer’s yeast!

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