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A microscopic state issue

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy delivers remarks at

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy delivers remarks at the National Action Network 2018 National Convention, Manhattan on April 18, 2018.  Credit: Charles Eckert

When it comes to state pride, it’s often the little things that matter. And now, even the microscopic stuff.

Last week, New Jersey became only the second state to adopt a microbe when Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law recognizing Streptomyces griseus with the official honor.  

That’s the microbe necessary for producing Streptomycin, which was the second big antibiotic developed, coming after penicillin, and is credited with saving millions of lives by effectively fighting tuberculosis, among other diseases.

Streptomyces griseus was discovered in 1943 in a field at the New Jersey Agricultural Experimental Station by Albert Schatz, a Rutgers doctoral student.

The only other state with an official microbe is Oregon, which made Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast, its official standard bearer in 2013 to recognize the state’s thriving beer-brewing industry and culture.

So will New York follow in Jersey’s teensy microbe-loving footsteps, and if so, what should it honor? New York has a great cheese history and could go after Lactococcus lactis, which is key to cheddar production. But Wisconsin already looked at adopting that one in 2009, and in the end rejected it. Do we really want Wisconsin’s cast-off microbe?

Two great options might be Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, the key bacteria in yogurt production. Greek yogurt has become an increasingly vital part of the upstate economy.

But if we’re really looking for microbes that are putting New York on the map right now, two candidates stand out above all others:

The rubeola virus causes measles, and New York is dominating the nation in what has become the worst outbreak in the United States since 1994. In 2019, 839 cases have now been reported nationwide, and 623 of those are the pride of the Empire State.

Candida auris, although first discovered in Japan in 2009, made its first U.S. appearance in New York in 2017. The fungi, which is increasingly plaguing hospitals, carries a 35 percent mortality rate, is highly resistant to antifungal drugs and is all but impossible to scour out of hospitals once it sets down roots. And New York wasn’t just first in the nation with Candida auris — it continues to lead. Of about 600 cases confirmed nationwide, 319 occurred in New York.

Take that, Jersey!