A THANKS WOULD BE NICE

The New Jersey Germ That Probably Saved Your Life

Laugh all you want about the Garden State’s odd new honoree—you’d probably be dead without it.

On May 15, State Senator Samuel D. Thompson, representing New Jersey’s 12th District, introduced Senate Bill No. 3190, designating another New Jersey emblem. At the time, the Garden State had a state dance (the square dance), a state animal (horse), a state fish (brook trout), a state flower (common meadow violet), a state bird (Eastern goldfinch), a state fruit (highbush blueberry), a state tree (red oak), state colors (buff and Jersey blue), and even a state bug (honey bee). What New Jersey didn’t have was a state germ.

Thompson proposed Streptomyces griseus.

New Jersey wasn’t the first state to make such a proposal.

In 2010, Wisconsin proposed Lactococcus lactis, which is used in the manufacture of Colby, Cheddar, and Monterey Jack cheeses, as its state germ. Legislators dropped the proposal the following year.

In 2013, Oregon became the first state to have a state germ after it passed legislation naming Saccharomyces cerevisia, a microbe commonly known as brewer’s yeast, which is used to make beer.

It’s easy to understand why Wisconsin would pick a microbe related to cheese and Oregon would pick one related to beer. (Oregon is a consistent national leader in craft beers). But why Streptomyces griseus in New Jersey?

The streptomyces story begins about a hundred years ago.

In 1916, Selman Waksman, a professor of microbiology and biochemistry at Rutgers University, isolated Streptomyces griseus from New Jersey soil. The reason he was interested in streptomyces was that the microbe was remarkable in its ability to survive under difficult environmental conditions, out-competing other bacteria. Streptomyces, as it turns out, makes a substance that can kill other bacteria—a substance that would later become enormously useful.

In 1943, Albert Schatz, along with Waksman, isolated the bacteria-killing substance, calling it streptomycin. To their surprise, they found that streptomycin killed Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis. Waksman became the first person to use the term antibiotic, even though the discovery of streptomycin followed those of sulfa drugs and penicillin. Streptomycin was, however, the first antibiotic to treat tuberculosis and the first antibiotic to be discovered on American soil. (Sulfa drugs had been discovered in Germany and penicillin in England.)

After clinical trials showed that streptomycin was an effective weapon in the treatment of tuberculosis, Merck, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, made it available to the public.

In 1947, an article in The New York Times stated that streptomycin would “save more lives than were lost in both World Wars.” It didn’t take long for the Times prophecy to come true. Within 10 years of streptomycin’s release, the mortality rate from tuberculosis fell to nine deaths per 100,000 in 1955 from 194 deaths per 100,000 in 1900. Millions of lives were saved.

In 1952, Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of streptomycin. Unfortunately, the Nobel panel unfairly ignored Schatz’s contribution. Schatz sued both Waksman and Rutgers University, eventually reaching a financial settlement as well as entitlement to “legal and scientific credit as co-discover of streptomycin.”

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Selman Waksman was buried in the Crowell Cemetery in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. On his tombstone is engraved Selman Abraham Waksman, Scientist, Born July 22, 1888, Died August 16, 1973. The tombstone also includes a reference to his Nobel-winning discovery: “The earth will open and bring forth salvation” (Isaiah 45:8).

It was New Jersey’s soil, New Jersey’s researchers, and a New Jersey pharmaceutical company that provided humankind with the first weapon in the fight against one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Streptomyces griseus clearly deserves its rightful place as New Jersey’s first state germ.

Paul A. Offit is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (National Geographic Press, April 2017).