July 7, 2020

Horseshoe-crab blood is a surprisingly essential ingredient for testing new drugs

It’s the only known natural source of an important substance called limulus amebocyte lysate.

Here’s a weird fact that feels perfect for our even weirder 2020: We’re all vampires hunting horseshoe crabs.

The blood of the horseshoe crab is the only known natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate (don’t try and sound it out, you’ll give yourself an aneurysm).

It detects deadly toxins in pharmaceuticals, and helps greenlight lifesaving drugs — including a potential coronavirus vaccine. But our reliance on it also threatens the ocean ecosystem.

The crabs are bleeding out

According to National Geographic, drug companies harvest 500k horseshoe crabs per year.

Drug-company harvesting, in addition to overuse for fishing bait, reduced the number of horseshoe crabs spawned in Delaware Bay, NJ from 1.24m in 1990 to 335k in 2019.

The crabs are released back to the ocean once they’re bled, but up to 30% die anyways — endangering the marine food chain.

Plus, lysate is pricey. One gallon goes for ~$60k.

No imitation crab, please

A synthetic alternative to crab lysate was approved in Europe, but the US maintains its safety is still unproven.

One bit of good news: Despite the concerns of conservationists, drug companies say the amount of lysate needed to test a coronavirus vaccine would be minimal.

Time for Animal Planet

Here are some things I learned about horseshoe crabs (AKA my new favorite animal) while writing this:

  • They’re more spider than crab. They have nine eyes! Terrifying.
  • They’re also literal dinosaurs. Horseshoe crabs have been hanging around beaches for 445m years.
  • Every year, they have a “massive orgy” in Delaware Bay. Dirty Jersey is right.

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