Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

Minuscule Mascot

Story by Aaron Kandell 

What do the monk seal, nene and hula have in common? They’re three of the sixteen official symbols for the State of Hawai‘i (state mammal, state bird and state dance respectively). So what’s one more, especially a very tiny one?

A group of microbiologists and other single-celled devotees have proposed a seventeenth, Flavobacterium akiainvivens, to be the official microbe of the Aloha State. While a plant-eating bacterium might lack the glamor of, say, black coral or surfing (state gem and state individual sport), its advocates believe it is just as important a symbol as the humuhumunukunukuapua‘ a (state fish) is. Now if only they can convince the Legislature.

“At first glance I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me,’” laughs Rep. James Tokioka, “but the more I read about it, I realized it’s not silly. We talk about promoting science, and this serves as an excellent opportunity to do that.” Tokioka introduced HB 2079 and shepherded it through the State House, only to have it meet overwhelming apathy in the Senate last session. To get the bill approved in the current session, Tokioka must persuade at least one senator that F. akiainvivens is fit to represent the Islands.

The bacterium, discovered by an O‘ahu high school student, is found only on the native ‘äkia, a shrub that ancient Hawaiians used for medicine, textiles and fish poison. The microbe has antibiotic properties that could lead to advancements in medicine. “We’re looking at the potential discovery of new cures; it might even affect how we treat cancer,” says University of Hawai‘i biologist Kenneth Kaneshiro. “The idea of this bill is to bring more awareness to the flora and fauna found only in Hawai‘i.”

If the bill passes, Hawai‘i will become the first state with an official microbe. But it’ll have to act fast: Other states are considering their own one-celled symbols. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast, which plays a key role in Oregon’s $2.4 billion craft beer industry; Lactobacillus lactis, which is essential to the manufacture of Wisconsin cheese; Carnobacterium pleistocenum, a microbe resurrected after thirty-two-thousand years trapped in Alaska ice. Los Angeles even has a nomination for a “city microbe”: Clostridium botulinum, the Botox bug.