Lactococcus is here to stay!

There was a great story recently on National Public Radio about the Wisconsin state legislature passing a bill to name the first state microbe: Lactococcus lactis.

States commonly have a state flower, animal, bird, song, even a state dance, but this is thought to be the first time that a state has named an official microbe.

Lactococcus are cocci bacterium, which means that the individual bacterial cells have a circular shape. Cocci bacteria species can be solitary or they can cluster together. If they group, they can form chains like little pearl necklaces or bunches like grapes. Lactococcus groups in pairs and short chains.

This bacterium has been important in human culture because it thrives on milk sugars (lactose), using the sugar as energy and producing a waste product of lactic acid. Normally this might be a bad thing, but some prehistoric culinary genius discovered that not all was lost if her milk was spoiled by this bug.

By producing lactic acid as part of its digestive activities, the pH of the milk was lowered (becoming more acidic) which causes the milk proteins to curdle, or clump together, thus separating the curd from the whey (the part of the milk that stays liquid). A similar result can be obtained by adding other acids to the milk, such as stomach acid, and it may be that the first curdling was done when milk was stored in a bag made of an animal stomach.

However it happens, separating the solids out of the milk is almost always the first step in the production of cheese. From this step different ingredients are added to make the wide variety of cheeses that we enjoy today.

So it makes since that the Wisconsin legislature recognized the importance of this little “bug” to their state’s economy. In fact, as pointed out by Elio Schaechter of the microbe blog Small Things Considered, we could live without the state animals, but we really could not live our lives without the microbes.

NPR invites people to auggest other appropriate state microbes. You can put your vote in at NPR (include microbe in the subject line of your email). Leave your vote here too. Which microbe is most important to your region?

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