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Saturday, February 24, 2024
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The fight for America’s dairyland to title a state microbe

The microbe Lactococcus lactis is an essential component of Wisconsin’s cheese industry. The Catalyst for Science Policy group threw a gala to advocate for it to become the state microbe.

Wisconsin has a state bird, flower, tree and even a state pastry. But what about a state microbe?

The Catalysts for Science Policy (CSP) hosted a gala Tuesday in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Discovery building to celebrate the significance of Lactococcus lactis, an essential component of cheese, while pushing for its adoption as Wisconsin’s state microbe. 

Several influential individuals in the field of agricultural sciences spoke at the gala, addressing a crowd of students, faculty and cheesemakers alike. 

Natalia Rosario-Meléndez, UW-Madison graduate student and CSP co-president, kicked off the gala with a speech explaining her group’s mission. 

“CSP works to educate members in the many facets of science policy,” Rosario-Meléndez said. “We always try to engage with campus, local and national policymakers in all the work that we do.”

CSP headlined awareness efforts for the introduction of the state microbe. 

Rosario-Meléndez introduced Jo Handelsman, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery director and former science advisor to former President Barack Obama.

Handelsman, who has advocated for a state microbe for over a decade, also served as professor and chair of UW-Madison’s Department of Bacteriology from 2007 to 2009.

“One of our staff said, ‘I think we should have a state microbe,’” Handelsman said. “Turned out she was kidding, but I thought it was a great idea.”

Upon realizing there was such a vast variety of state symbols, Handelsman and her team thought it would be fitting to add the microbe that is responsible for much of Wisconsin’s notoriety — cheese — to the state symbol lineup. 

“Wisconsin’s economy is essentially a microbial economy. It is hard to find a large sector of our economy that isn’t based on microbial life,” Handelsman said. “There would be no cheese without [Lactococcus lactis].”

Handeslman’s idea made it to the state Legislature, where it passed the Assembly in 2009 but stalled in the Senate.

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Still, 16 years after her bacterial brainstorm, Handelsman is throwing new life into her movement with the help of student organizations like CSP. 

Glenda Gillaspy, dean of UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, addressed several key indicators of Lactococcus lactis’ importance. 

“Wisconsin agriculture brings in almost $105 billion, and our state economy is about three times that,” Gillaspy explained. “Bacterium is super important. It’s a third of the state’s economy.” 

Gillaspy couldn’t help but share her enthusiasm for cheese itself, bragging about Wisconsin’s role in the American cheesemaking pantheon. 

“We make about 25% of the cheese in the U.S.,” Gillaspy said, noting that Wisconsin has over a million dairy cows in the state. 

Lawmakers haven’t taken up the issue in over a decade. But Handelsman said the fight for a statewide recognition of Lactococcus lactis isn’t over yet and used the gala as a launchpad for renewed advocacy. 

“Get [Lactococcus lactis] where it rightly belongs along with the other state symbols. We’re looking at all of you to help launch that campaign,” she said. 

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