The Last Days of the Blue-Blood Harvest


Horseshoe crabs are sometimes called “living fossils” because they have been around in some form for more than 450 million years. In this time, the Earth has gone through multiple major ice ages, a Great Dying, the formation and subsequent breaking up of Pangaea, and an asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs and most of life on Earth yet again. In other words, horseshoe crabs have truly seen some shit.

Yet, I would conjecture, some of their strangest experiences must have come in just the past few decades, as one of the soft-bodied mammals that came after dinosaurs began using their hands to scoop horseshoe crabs out of the ocean en masse. Contemporary humans do not deliberately kill the horseshoe crabs—as did previous centuries of farmers catching them for fertilizer or fishermen using them as bait. Instead, they scrub the crabs clean of barnacles, fold their hinged carapaces, and stick stainless steel needles into a soft, weak spot, in order to draw blood. Horseshoe crab blood runs blue and opaque, like antifreeze mixed with milk.

And for what exactly do humans need the blood of a living fossil? A sort of witchcraft, you might say, for it literally keeps people alive. Horseshoe-crab blood is exquisitely sensitive to toxins from bacteria. It is used to test for contamination during the manufacture of anything that might go inside the human body: every shot, every IV drip, and every implanted medical device.

So reliant is the modern biomedical industry on this blood that the disappearance of horseshoe crabs would instantly cripple it. And in recent years, horseshoe crabs, particularly in Asia, have come under a number of threats: habitat loss as seawalls replace the beaches where they spawn, pollution, overfishing for use as food and bait. Horseshoe crabs bled for the biomedical use in the United States are returned to the ocean, but an estimated 50,000 also die in the process every year.

Horseshoe crabs being bled at Charles River Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina (Timothy Fadek / Corbis / Getty)

There is another way though—a way for modern medicine to make use of modern technology rather than the blood of an ancient animal. A synthetic substitute for horseshoe-crab blood has been available for 15 years. This is a story about how scientists quietly managed to outdo millions of years of evolution, and why it has taken the rest of …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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