A microbe winds its way through the halls of government

It’s was a small step for a small microbe, but a pretty big step in the effort to give Lactococcus lactis the respect it deserves.  A bill to designate the bacterium, which is essential for turning milk into cheese, as Wisconsin’s official state microbe was approved by the state assembly’s Committee on State Affairs and Homeland Security on Dec. 3 and will be taken up by the full state assembly sometime next year (perhaps in April).

“We call those people who oppose [the bill] ‘lactose intolerant,'” says Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), the bill’s sponsor.

A presentation in support of the initiative was made to the committee by John Roll and Regina Whitemarsh, adjunct professor and undergraduate, respectively, in the Department of Bacteriology. Faculty and staff in that department came up with the idea a couple of years ago, says Michelle Rondon, an assistant scientist involved in the departments outreach activities.

“The idea came up in a general conversation about what we could do to promote microbes. We thought about what microbe would be appropriate, and we thought a natural choice would be one involving cheese. We wanted to promote both Wisconsin and microbiology, and this way we could achieve the same two objectives with the same microbe.”

A key player in the effort was emeritus professor Ken Todar, who assembled supporting materials. The bacteriologists also garnered support from the Center for Dairy Research and the department of food science, notably Jim Steele, an expert on Lactococcus lactis and related microbes.

A similar initiative, to declare the Harley-Davidson as the state’s official motorcycle, did not make it out of committee. Obviously, in Wisconsin, cheese is stronger than steel.