New Jersey could be next to have a state microbe, and it’s saved millions of lives

Most people think of microbes as causing disease, but the new interactive exhibit “Microbes Rule!” at the Liberty Science Center is about the good side of microbes.

There’s one bacteria in particular that some are pushing to have as New Jersey’s state microbe — streptomyces.

“Streptomyces is a producer of compounds we know as antibiotics, and one of the most famous ones is streptomycin,” said Max Häggblom, biochemistry and microbiology professor at Rutgers University.

“Streptomycin is the first antibiotic after penicillin, the first American antibiotic and the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis,” said author John Warhol.

It was discovered at Rutgers University in the early 1940s by Professor Selman Waksman and his graduate students Albert Schatz and Elizabeth Bugie.

“It was a revolutionary idea of finding medicine from dirt, essentially,” said Häggblom.

“Almost every antibiotic that we use today was really discovered through this process established by Dr. Waksman,” said Todd Black, executive director of infectious diseases and drug discovery at Merck Research Laboratories.

So while Alexander Fleming in the 1920s discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, “It took another 20 years for this really to become a systematic search. And that was one of the big breakthroughs at Rutgers,” Häggblom said.

Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952. Warhol says he spearheaded the efforts to get streptomyces recognized to acknowledge its importance in saving millions of lives.

“By naming a state microbe, we honor all their work,” Warhol said, “but we do more than just honor their contributions. We create the opportunity to teach people basic science.”

Like the new exhibit at Liberty Science Center, which is putting microbes in the spotlight.

“This is a microbe that New Jersey should be proud of,” Häggblom said.

The bill to make streptomyces New Jersey’s state microbe passed the Senate unanimously and is awaiting a full vote on the floor of the Assembly.

“It symbolizes the state as a leader in innovation, research, and discovery and in making a difference that has an impact that is worldwide,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, who chairs the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.

If it passes, New Jersey will become the second state with an official state microbe. Oregon has recognized brewer’s yeast as theirs.

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