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Wisconsin experiments with the idea of a state bacterium

December 8, 2009 |  4:04 pm

Cheeseheadap

State budgets are tight and getting tighter, but politicians in Wisconsin are determined to promote the Badger State in a slightly cheesy way:

The state assembly is considering a bill currently that would name the bacterium that converts milk into cheese as -- ready for it? -- the official state microbe.

The microbe, Lactococcus lactis, is poised to join the state’s list of 21 designated symbols, which includes an official dance (the polka), beverage (milk) and domesticated animal (the Holstein dairy cow).

It would also be a first for the nation.

The idea first bubbled up a couple of months ago, when researchers at the University of ....

...Wisconsin, Madison's department of bacteriology contacted lawmakers with suggestions of how to draw attention to the state’s emerging biotechnology industries and long-standing roots in agriculture.

Cheese, after all, is huge in Wisconsin and lawmakers have never been hesitant to tout the industry to rally support. The state proclaims itself America’s Dairyland on its license plates and is a booster of its $18-billion cheese industry.

But even these Cheesehead leaders were a bit perplexed by the bacteria idea.

“My first reaction was, ‘Uh…why would we do that?’” recalled Democrat Rep. Gary Hebl, one of the lead authors of Assembly Bill 556.  “But then we started talking about it and it made sense.”

It's even got the university's bacteriology department excited.

Lactococcus lactis, Hebl learned, is the chief starter culture for a variety of cheeses and other dairy products and is also being engineered to improve vaccine delivery. He and a crew of fellow Democrats decided that they’d introduce the bill last month, in part because “we’ve been making a lot of painful cuts in our budget, and this doesn’t cost us anything,” Hebl said.

Besides, he added, “Wisconsin has a blossoming biotechnology industry and being the first state in the nation to adopt a state microbe is a great way to tell the world that Wisconsin is moving biotechnology forward.”

Well, that’s one way to do it.

Some of his peers, though, wanted to give the microbe a name a wee bit easier to pronounce. But Hebl wouldn’t hear of it. 

“There was talk about calling it ‘little cheesy,’” Hebl said. “No way. Lactococcus lactis is easy to remember. It’s like French, it just rolls off the tongue.”

(It’s pronounced lac-tow-co-cock-us lac-tis, by the way. Duh.)

The bill, currently in the state Assembly’s state affairs and homeland security committee, is set for a committee vote on Dec. 17. If all goes well, its fans expect it to go to the Assembly floor for a vote in mid-January.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

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Photo: Associated Press

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