CAMDEN, New Jersey — Known for its oddities and quirks, New Jersey may soon have another: an official state germ.
New Jersey would become only the second state in the country with a state germ. A bill introduced last month in the Legislature would make Streptomyces griseus New Jersey’s official microbe.
When a constituent suggested a germ for a state that already has an official symbol for everything from a dinosaur to a bug, Sen. Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex, was admittedly just a little skeptical. It would be more fodder to poke fun at New Jersey, he thought.
“A state microbe?” wondered Thompson, a retired research scientist whose 12th District includes parts of Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties. “At first I scratched my head.” Currently, only Oregon has an official state microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, known as brewer’s yeast, used to make beer. Wisconsin and Hawaii reportedly are considering similar action.
Thompson was convinced to sponsor the legislation after learning about the significance that the microbe played in developing an antibiotic to attack tuberculosis, at the time the second-leading cause of death in the United States.
Penicillin, the only other antibiotic available at that time, had no effect in the treatment of tuberculosis.
In 1943, researchers from Rutgers University, led by Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz, used the microbe to create streptomycin, the world’s first antibiotic for tuberculosis. After successful clinical trials, Merck & Co., a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, made the drug available to the public.
Because of streptomycin, tuberculosis mortality rates fell drastically in the U.S. within 10 years. The antibiotic was touted as a wonder drug.
“The disease was one of the worst plagues that people experienced. So many people were affected by it,” Joachim Messing, a molecular biology professor and chairman of Rutgers’ Waksman Institute of Microbiology in Piscataway, said.
Waksman persuaded Merck to put the development of other drugs on hold and focus primarily on producing streptomycin, according to Messing, who met Waksman at a conference in Germany. Merck and Rutgers gave up their exclusive rights to the antibiotic so that others could make the drug, he said.
“There was such a demand,” Messing said. “It was clear that people who had the disease and didn’t get the antibiotic would die.” Waksman was awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1952 for his work in discovering S. griseus and creating streptomycin. He died in 1973.
“I can’t think of anything more important than the work that was done,” Thompson said Wednesday. “It’s something that the people of New Jersey should take pride in.”
Today, streptomycin has been replaced with more effective antibiotics. Researchers say streptomycin played a critical role in the fight against bacterial infections and helped shorten or prevent certain illnesses.
New Jersey microbiological groups selected S. griseus, a soil-based microorganism, during a contest by the groups to be nominated as the state germ, said Douglas Eveleigh, a retired Rutgers microbiology and chemistry professor. They lobbied Thompson to sponsor the legislation, which was introduced last month.
“The discovery of streptomycin and its effects on world health continue to inspire,” Eveleigh wrote to Thompson.
New Jersey has a handful of state symbols, including an official fish (brook trout), bug (honey bee), animal (horse), bird (Eastern goldfinch), dance (American folk), and dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii). Thompson said he expects the legislature to pass the bill, possibly when lawmakers return in the fall. The measure is co-sponsored in the lower house by Deputy Majority Leader Annette Quijano, D-Union.
“When you look at it, it is a good bill. There is not one reason for anyone to have objection to it,” Thompson said.
Messing applauded the move, saying the antibiotic was among the most significant contributions made in New Jersey.
“What can be more important than somebody’s life?” he said.
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