A state microbe is the yeast of our problems

Did you realize that Oregon has been careening through its history without a state microbe? Well, sir, the Oregon House has just passed a measure that would make Saccharomyces cerevisiae, brewer's yeast, the stuff used in beer, the state's official microbe.

If the Senate goes along, the invisible organism would join Oregon's state bird (western meadowlark), state animal (beaver), state tree (Douglas fir), state flower (Oregon grape) and state fish (chinook salmon) on the list of iconic Oregon species.

Oregon would be the first state to have an official microbe. Which probably means we're really progressive — or just plain weird.

Rep. Mark Johnson, the Hood River Republican who introduced the measure, pointed out that there's a craft brewery in every legislative district in the state.

While that's not technically true — our own House District 4, which covers Central Point, White City and Eagle Point, lacks a licensed brewery — Johnson was rallying the troops, and it's the spirit of the thing.

Now, it would be easy to make fun of politicians in Salem coming together behind the tiny organism that makes all that chi-chi, high-alcohol micro-brew. Something Rs and Ds can finally agree on.

But while I'm not trying to bork S. cerevisiae, if it were running for the office of state microbe, its opponents' dirt-diggers would point with glee to the invasive infections it's been linked to. This (admittedly uncommon) event has occurred when our little brewster buddies have been administered to hospital patients as a probiotic in the treatment of antibiotic-related diarrhea.

I'm just saying, before we go marching (or oozing or however S. cerevisiae gets around) lockstep into a future of sudsy solidarity, a little caution might be in order. Do you want 30 million Californians asking you why our state honors a germ?

We've made rash choices before. Remember in 1846 when we adopted the hairy triton as the state seashell? It lives in Alaska, San Diego, Japan, all over. It's a snail. What kind of a state seashell is that?

Other candidates might include the aquatic microbes off the Oregon Coast, which together with their oceanic brethren have produced half the planet's oxygen. Nothing against beer, but it's not oxygen.

What about logging microbes? A recent U.S. Forest Service study found that log ponds on the Oregon Coast have high concentrations of organic compounds and other stuff, thanks to the microbes in the water. And logging is almost as big a part of Oregon history as beer.

What does a state's history have to do with microbes? Well, as one wag pointed out in a letter to Microbe magazine — you probably read it — assigning to states the microbes associated with them is just plain fun.

Montana would get Rickettsia rickettsii (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), Louisiana would get Mycobacterium leprae (leprosy) and Connecticut would get Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme disease). If cities start claiming microbes, Los Angeles would get Clostridium botulinum (Botox).

You want a microorganism with Oregon street cred? In a lava tube near Newberry Crater north of Klamath Falls, scientists have found these amazing rock-eating microbes. They live in ice, get by with nearly no oxygen and, in a neat bit of symbolism for many Oregonians if the economy doesn't pick up soon, can get by without actual food.

How? By consuming the iron in olivine, a silicate material found in volcanic rocks on Earth and — are you ready for this? — Mars!

How cool is that? One of the scientists on the project said a meteorite from Mars has tracks on it that could mean it was dined on by Martian microbes like our Newberry pals.

Imagine. A bit of space junk left over from the formation of the solar system is wrenched from Mars by a chance cosmic event and whisked through the cold depths of interplanetary space to Earth.

The meteor crashes at the crater. A beautiful Martian microbe gets off the smoking cinder and strolls into an ice cave, causing a cynical, loner microbe to choke on the rock he's munching. She has trouble written all over her. He pours himself a stiff one.

"Of all the lava tubes in all the craters in all the solar system," he says, "she walks into mine."

Now those are some Oregon-worthy microbes. Romantic, but tough.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.


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