June 4, 2013

We Govern Best When We Govern Yeast


Don’t look now, but you’re outnumbered. Vastly outnumbered. At this very moment, you’re surrounded by hordes of microbes, germs, and bacteria.

And some of them are really quite angry with you.

What’s the source of their puny fury? Well, the Oregon legislature just made Saccharomyces cerevisiae (or “brewer’s yeast”) the official state microbe. While this may sound silly, it does make a small amount of sense. After all, brewer’s yeast is a great aid to both bakers and brewers—and beer is undeniably Oregonian.

Via.
Before achieving statehood in 1859, Oregon was a hard-drinking territory. And brewer’s yeast put in long hours working for people like Henry Weinhard. But the little critter did its job too well. Staggering beer enthusiasts were so repulsive, Oregon got a head start on Prohibition five years before the rest of the nation.

But in 1933, the temperance movement went flat, and Prohibition was repealed. Oregon hopped back on the brewery bandwagon, and today, beer is one of the state’s claims to fame. Our brewers like to point out that they’ve generated over two billion dollars in revenue. And Portland beer-lovers love to boast that they have more craft brewers than any city in the world. You can hardly throw an artisanally-crafted hipster here without hitting a microbrewery.

So giving brewer’s yeast official recognition seems justifiable—but there IS a problem. During deliberation on the “official microbe” bill in the Oregon House, Rep. Vicki Berge asked this excellent question:

“Is there a competing microbe?”

Yes! Microbes are in constant competition, and they are very mindful of their relative standings. Look, just because germs are little doesn’t mean they don’t care about social justice. And that’s why singling out brewer’s yeast for this honor will only ferment turmoil in the microbial community.

Perhaps you’re not concerned about such a teeny threat. But you should be! After all, the average human is home to 100 trillion microbes. That means that 90 percent of the cells in your body are bacterial. Remember when I said you were vastly outnumbered? I was being kind. A good argument could be made that you are not even YOU. Rather, you’re simply a mobile habitat for a mind-boggling population of germs.

No offense.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get a scientific reading on exactly how many microbes resent being passed over by the Oregon legislature. But even if only one dangerous bacterium takes offense, we’re in for some serious trouble. For example, just imagine the horrors that an enraged Clostridium difficile (or C. diff) could inflict on our digestive tracts.

In my opinion, the legislature gave in too quickly to Oregon’s “it’s a brew-tiful world” lobby. Virtually all representatives claim that public health is one of their prime priorities. So why didn’t they appease a more lethal micro-organism? It wouldn’t even have been that difficult. Look, our official state fish is the chinook salmon. Why not go with that theme and pay tribute to an associated microbe? Ladies and gentleman, I give you—Salmonella!

Not only would this be a smart move, it would also set a good example for our neighbor to the south. If California has any integrity, it’ll follow the trail we’ve blazed and select a microbe linked to the state’s identity. And in that land of unlined foreheads and frozen smiles, there is only one likely candidate: Clostridium botulinum, a.k.a. Botox.

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