Wonder + Wildness

Chasing wonder on a science guided journey through the natural world in search of meaning, connections, and the courage to hope

Baby-Blue Bloods

Springtime is synonymous with new life, abundance, and beginning anew, and for horseshoe crabs, there is no exception. With the full moon as their guide, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs emerge from their saltwater rooms onto beaches across the US Atlantic coast to lay their eggs. It’s an annual occurrence that time has made a crucial ecological event, a Crab Fest if you will, for a variety of species including the Red Knot.

It’s also crucial to us.

See, horseshoe crabs are a  biological oddity, a valuable one at that, especially to drug companies who look to them to ensure medicines and vaccines are safe for all of us.

And the key is in their blood.

The first thing people notice is it’s blue, baby blue, and milky, not unlike the Bantha Milk of Star Wars.

It’s liquid gold for one very special reason. Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL. Horseshoe crab blood is the only known natural source of it. 

To get it, pharmaceutical companies round up roughly half a million horseshoe crabs per year, bleed them…a bit, and return them to their oceanic abodes hopefully unharmed, able to contribute to this baby blue blood drive for years to come.

LAL is a substance within specific horseshoe crab blood cells called amoebocytes which detect foreign contaminants and toxins and react by forming an inescapable blob or clot.

It’s a trait that was co-discovered by scientist Fred Bang in 1956 and is able to detect dangers at concentrations as low as one part per trillion. It didn’t take long to realize the medical implications of this find. At a time when an increasing number of medicines were being designed to enter the human bloodstream, we now had a brand new, highly effective way to be absolutely certain that they were safe, taking the place of the previously used method—testing pharmaceuticals on mass colonies of live rabbits.

Fast forward and today, every drug, implant, prosthetic, or pacemaker certified by the FDA must be tested using LAL

The whole process, from the perspective of the horseshoe crab, is reminiscent of an alien abduction. After being retrieved from the beach and brought to the lab, technicians drain them of up to 30% of their blood. In terms of volume, we’re talking a maximum of 400 mL. One quart, or roughly 3 harvests, of the stuff is worth $15,000. One gallon, $60,000

There’s only five companies that do the bleeding: Associates of Cape Cod, Lonza, Wako Chemicals, Charles River Endosafe, and Limuli Labs.

After a variety of health checks, the horseshoe crabs begin their journey back to the ocean, often a great distance from where they came to avoid re-bleeding the same individuals.

The whole thing takes anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, before, the hope is, they carry on as they were before. But do hopes match reality?

Between 3 and 30 percent of the bled animals, according to a variety of estimates die. 

Some studies suggest that the females seem to be less active, less likely to lay eggs in the immediate time afterward.

It’s important to note that this is far from the only mortality source for the horseshoe crab. The species has been harvested since colonial times for fertilizer and bait.

In just one location, the Delaware Bay, populations dropped from 1.23 million in 1990 to 333,500 in 2002. Those numbers have since held fairly steady, but have never reached anywhere near their numbers of 22 years ago.

The bleeding industry has become an absolutely essential part of maintaining and ensuring public health, and its success has become even more so over the past two years in the battle against COVID-19, but it’s not without its consequences. A curious mind might wonder if there are any alternatives that could help with such high demand or reduce cost. A synthetic alternative called recombinant factor C was approved in 2016 for use in Europe. Some US companies followed suit.

But on June 1, 2020, the American Pharmacopeia, which sets the scientific standards for drugs and other products in the U.S., declined the rfC as an equal alternative, citing uncertainty about safety.

The sheer, unprecedented demand, has put conservationists on alarm, but pharmaceutical companies have attested that the amount of LAL they need for vaccine and treatment developments is negligible in terms of capacity.

But of course, this isn’t only about horseshoe crabs

It’s about the others dependent on them, and the ecosystems in which they reside.

It’s a complicated issue, don’t get me wrong. One could logically say that pharmaceutical companies, of course, would have the conservation of horseshoe crabs in their own best interests. After all, the bleeding industry does not exist without them. Ensuring their survival ensures the survival of their business. However, there do appear to be alternatives, which raises a question.

What is the cost of production of those alternatives compared to the continuation of an already established industry dependent on horseshoe crabs?

If the cost far outweighs that of the existing infrastructure, it’s easy to see why a company might shy away from adopting some alternative.

Those are questions that I do not have the answer to. Surely somebody does. Surely it’s been thought of. Surely it’s worth looking into.

Either way, this is where we are today.

Our health, public health, vaccinations are deeply connected, intertwined, dependent on an obscure little creature from the sea.


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