Horseshoe Crabs May Save Your Life

Why? Because a compound in their blood clots when it meets harmful bacteria. According to Nature Conservancy magazine (“Jurassic Beach,” summer 2008), “Many countries, including the United States, now require that the biomedical industry use this compound, called lysate, to test just about any object or substance used during a medical procedure that could cause infection—syringes, scalpels, intravenous drugs.”

That discovery occurred in the 1950s. Since then, the article estimates, the blood of horseshoe crabs may have saved 1 million lives.

To get lysate, several hundred thousand horseshoe crabs must be caught and bled each year. More than half of them survive and are returned to the ocean, but about 40% do not. It’s hard to keep a population steady when it’s losing so many individuals each year.

In addition, horseshoe crab meat is popular as bait in some fisheries, which were not regulated until 1999. In the last 10 years of regulations, there are signs that the horseshoe crab population is recovering.

The article I read in Nature Conservancy magazine is mostly concerned with that organization’s volunteers monitoring the crab population. That’s to be expected. But for the purposes of this blog, horseshoe crab restoration seems like an obvious project for the biomedical industry to fund. If the industry did so, it would be guarding its own bottom line.

According to the article, however, the crab count was started by a researcher at the University of Delaware in 1990. And industry groups have resisted limiting the catch. (I don’t mean to get down on fisherpeople. It’s not easy fishing for a living these days as an individual or as part of a small group.)

If the biomedical industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate, it should. That would set a great example.