Microbe may be elevated to symbol of Hawaii

Hawaii schoolchildren learn a number of state symbols: the state flower, the yellow hibiscus; the state bird, the nene; the state tree, kukui; and so on.

Then there’s the proposed addition of an official state microbe, Flavobacterium akiainvivens. It could become part of students’ lists of Hawaii state symbols if a recommendation by the state House Committee on Veterans, Military and International Affairs and Culture and the Arts becomes law.

House Rep. James Kunane Tokioka, who represents residents of southeastern Kauai, introduced House Bill 293. It calls for establishing and designating Flavobacterium akiainvivens as the official microbe of the state.

His bill explains that the state has 16 official symbols of Hawaii, from the state motto, “ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono,” or “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”; to the state plant, kalo, or taro.

“These designated symbols are representative of all things unique to the state of Hawaii and its individual islands,” Tokioka’s bill says. “Missing from this group of symbols is an official state microbe.”

If passed, the measure would make Hawaii unique among the 50 states.

“No other state has an official microbe,” said Stuart Donachie, a professor of microbiology at the University of Hawaii who submitted written testimony in support of the state microbe designation Wednesday. “Hawaii can lead the way: Flavobacterium akiainvivens was discovered in Hawaii. It can be the first state microbe in the nation.”

That’s not all that would make the microbe unique. It was discovered and named by a 2012 Iolani School graduate, Iris Kuo, in collaboration with Donachie and Jimmy Saw of the UH Department of Microbiology; Durrell Kapan and Kenneth Kaneshiro of the UH Center for Conservation and Research Training; and Stephanie Christensen of the UH Department of Oceanography.

“This bacterium forms 2- to 3-millimeter diameter colonies that range from cream to off-white in color and wet to mucoid in viscosity, and (it) was isolated from decaying Wikstroemia oahuensis collected on the island of Oahu,” according to the bill.

Wikstroemia oahuensis, or “akia,” is a flowering shrub endemic to Hawaii. Flavobacterium akiainvivens has been found on that plant and no other, Donachie said.

The bill says that designating an organism originating in Hawaii as the state microbe would “emphasize the unique nature of our island state.”

Donachie said microbes are not included among the state’s official emblems, “yet they are the most abundant organisms in Hawaii.” He added that designating the microbe would have a beneficial educational impact on island students.

“Through state emblem projects in school, children fall in love with whales, the Hawaiian monk seal and nene,” he said. “These children are tomorrow’s scientists and conservationists. However, they are also told that ‘germs’ are bad. Yet we need microbes just as we need people to study them.”

A culture of Flavobacterium akiainvivens “produces an enzyme that breaks down the plant cell wall,” Donachie said. “Flavobacterium akiainvivens is likely involved in nutrient cycling in Hawaii’s forests.”

The ongoing study of micro-organisms may lead to the next generation of antibiotics, said Kaneshiro, the director for Conservation and Research Training at the University of Hawaii.

“The potential application to medicine and human health is huge,” he said, while also supporting the measure to designate a state microbe.

“The biological diversity of micro-organisms (potentially thousands of species) that could be found in the native Hawaiian ecosystem is a gold mine waiting to be discovered, and it will be important to focus more research effort on this fauna,” Kaneshiro said in written testimony. “Designation of a state microbe will bring greater attention to this fauna and foster the kind of research and education that is needed to uncover the potential value of microbial fauna found in our ecosystems.”

More than a dozen people submitted written testimony in favor of the bill. There was no written opposition.

The House committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend passage of the measure, with amendments, which were not specified in an online report on the bill’s status.

Last year, a House committee recommended passage of another Tokioka-introduced bill to establish a state microbe, the bacterium Nesiotobacter exalbescens, a rare microbe found in a hypersaline lake on Laysan atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands. That bill passed the House, but it failed to pass out of the Senate Health Committee.

An attempt to discover why Tokioka changed the type of microbe to be designated as Hawaii’s official microbe was unsuccessful because the Kauai representative could not be reached for comment early Wednesday evening.

* Brian Perry can be reached at