92.7 F

Davis, California

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Column: Give yeast a chance

Politics, smolitics. Forget causes like budget cuts and education spending. Nominate your favorite microorganism for California’s state microbe and you could make history!

Microbes are itsy-bitsy organisms, like bacteria or fungi, which can only be seen under a microscope. They are usually unicellular and live everywhere – from your swimming pool to your small intestine. Microbes may not be the cuddliest mascots, but they are the biggest gang of living things on Earth.

Last week, Wisconsin stood poised to be the first state with an official microbe. Wisconsin legislators nominated Lactococcus lactis, a bacterium crucial to cheese-making, as the state’s symbolic microbe. Scientists and cheese-heads rejoiced. While the nomination for L. lactis passed in Wisconsin’s state assembly, the bill didn’t make it on to the state senate’s agenda for the year.

Way to fail, Wisconsin.

Now California can be first! But what microbe should we pick? I contacted some UC Davis microbiology experts to find a worthy nominee.

Jack Meeks, professor of microbiology, chose Oenococcus oenis, a bacterium involved in wine-making. O. oenis ferments malic acid in grapes into lactic acid, which affects the flavor of wine. This process also makes wines “somewhat bubbly,” Meeks said.

And there’s a local angle, too.

“The O. oenis culture used in the California wine industry was isolated at UC Davis,” Meeks said.

Good choice, but perhaps too narrow.

My friend Alexander Ko, a senior microbiology major, nominated Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, a bacterium that gives sourdough bread its taste. L. sanfranciscensis is important to the Bay Area, but it might not win statewide.

Some people had a humorous take on the issue.

“A funny one would be Clostridium botulinum, which produces the toxin known as Botox,” said Jonathan Eisen, professor of evolution and ecology. Hollywood area voters might frown over this nominee (if they still can).

One microbe, however, came up over and over during my quest: Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

S. cerevisiae is from a group of fungi called yeast. It performs fermentation and has many uses in the food industry.

“This species is used in making many things that California holds near and dear – like wine, bread and beer,” Eisen said.

I agree with the experts. S. cerevisiae embodies the spirit of California. It makes wine for our hip wine crowd and it supports the state’s microbrewery craze. S. cerevisiae makes parties possible – from your granny’s birthday cake to your roomie’s Natty Light.

S. cerevisiae is also important to education in California. The species is known as a “model organism,” which means scientists have sequenced its genome.

This makes the microbe a great example in the classroom. Linda Bisson, professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, said that research into S. cerevisiae’s genome has also led to advances in bioenergy. S. cerevisiae can ferment sugars from plants, which is an important step in the production of biofuels.

“From both a fundamental research and economical perspective, [S. cerevisiae] is the most important organism for California,” Bisson said. “We have a rich history with it.”

S. cerevisiae isn’t as charismatic as our state’s ferocious grizzly or adorable quail. Yeasts like S. cerevisiae look like little blobs, and they reproduce when little yeast babies “bud” off of mommy-yeasts. Not cute. Plus, the useful CO2 bubbles produced by yeast are actually waste products (think about that next time you pour some pricey champagne).

I support S. cerevisiae, but will its odd biology go over with the state government? With Schwarzenegger’s Austrian heritage, he should at least (at yeast!) recognize the beer-brewing importance.

It’s too late for a state microbe bill to get on California’s agenda this year, so let’s spend some time stewing over the possibilities and rally behind an official microbe. Forget Wisconsin. The Golden State should be first!

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT thinks everyone should have a favorite microbe! E-mail her your choice at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here