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Biotech Medicine

Horseshoe Crabs Are Bled Alive To Create an Unparalleled Biomedical Technology 159

Lasrick writes "Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic: 'The marvelous thing about horseshoe crab blood, though, isn't the color. It's a chemical found only in the amoebocytes of its blood cells that can detect mere traces of bacterial presence and trap them in inescapable clots.' Madrigal continues, 'To take advantage of this biological idiosyncrasy, pharmaceutical companies burst the cells that contain the chemical, called coagulogen. Then, they can use the coagulogen to detect contamination in any solution that might come into contact with blood. If there are dangerous bacterial endotoxins in the liquid—even at a concentration of one part per trillion—the horseshoe crab blood extract will go to work, turning the solution into what scientist Fred Bang, who co-discovered the substance, called a "gel." ... I don't know about you, but the idea that every single person in America who has ever had an injection has been protected because we harvest the blood of a forgettable sea creature with a hidden chemical superpower makes me feel a little bit crazy. This scenario is not even sci-fi, it's postmodern technology.'"
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Horseshoe Crabs Are Bled Alive To Create an Unparalleled Biomedical Technology

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  • Bled Alive? (Score:5, Funny)

    by just_another_sean ( 919159 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:14PM (#46349071) Journal

    Does PITA know about this? /ducks and covers

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Does PITA know about this? /ducks and covers

      No but HUMMUS Does

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Been going on for decades. [] Nothing new here. If PE^HITA disagrees, perhaps they should explain why the crabs, which are really more like spiders, are more important than all the people whose lives have been saved by this practice.
    • Re:Bled Alive? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:25PM (#46349261)

      That was my first thought actually. Are they kept alive and 'donate' a little at a time, or are they bled dry and then just tossed on the barbie? The latter seems a bit erm, wasteful and shortsighted to say the least.

      Also, as any biologist (or intelligent human) is aware, there is NO SUCH THING as a 'forgettable' creature. While the concept is interesting (if a bit discomforting), the summary reads like the ravings of sociopath.

      • Re:Bled Alive? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:32PM (#46349353)

        No, they take 30% of the crab's blood and do a distant release to avoid recapture. Research went into checking if the bleeders have reduced respawning. There's also research into a synthesizing the bacteria flagger.

        It sounds savage and I'm not suggesting they're kind to the crabs, but it sounds like they're not being totally irresponsible and causing another dodo.

        • by rthille ( 8526 )

          I'm surprised they don't just mark them with the date of last bleeding and release them where they caught them.

          • Marking their shell with the date of their harvest doesn't do you any good if you don't know how long it will be until the next time they moult; anything marking or attached to their shell will stay with the shell at moult, so if you harvest a crab, bleed it, mark the shell, and it moults a month later, you might pick up the same crab before it has a chance to recover.

          • I'm surprised that they even release these crabs instead of just bleeding them dry.

            Big pharma is really not a shining beacon of ethics and compassion.

        • Yeah, saying they're "bled alive" is a lot like saying you are "bled alive" every time you donate blood. A bit misleading.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        A small amount of blood is taken in a very careful manner, after which the creatures are released back into the sea. This harvesting is done only on adults, and iirc only once per year or so.

      • Re:Bled Alive? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by phaedrus5001 ( 1992314 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @07:47PM (#46352341)
        I actually work for a company that does this. The crab will only bleed a certain amount of blood (usually ~30%), then stop. We also don't bleed them if they're wounded or lethargic. I will agree, though, that I find the claim of a 'forgettable' creature dubious. Of course, this practice is the alternative of using rabbits to to check for bacterial endotoxins, so take your pick.
        • by Optali ( 809880 )

          Use humans instead? ;) (yeah, me bad)

          • Use humans instead?

            Or use proteins derived from human blood and/ or immune system components. (Which may be just what the other companies looking at this procedure are doing.)

            (yeah, me bad)

            Why? Common sense proposition on slashdot? Yeah - hand in your membership card then go out and gut yourself. Common sense isn't popular here.

      • Also, as any biologist (or intelligent human) is aware, there is NO SUCH THING as a 'forgettable' creature.

        Whilst we "intelligent humans" debate invented concepts like "morality", other creatures of nature carry on doing things to each other that we can only begin to have nightmares about. The only reason we worry about hurting other animals is because we are social creatures and therefore wired for empathy - but only for our own survival, not for any other reason. Ethics & morality exist purely for our benefit. Where it happens to benefit other creatures is purely incidental.

        • by Optali ( 809880 )

          Oh well, and you forgot to write that caviar is a luxury food. Oh, it has nothing to do with the issue discussed? Well, neither does you answer.

          The OP comment of no creature being "forgettable" was not about morality or the reasons for morality but about biology, ecology, diversity of species and their role in the ecosystems and / or there interest from a mere biologocial/zoological point of view... and here the horseshoe crab is actually quite an interesting animal being a living fossil...

          I don't see what

    • by Brigadier ( 12956 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:46PM (#46349515)

      Horse Shoe crabs area already a depleted resource as they have been used as cheap bait for fishermen for years. The impact being subsequent affects to migratory birds who feast on there eggs. I don't think the pharmacological community have a choice but to treat these crustaceans with the respect due

      http://www.endangeredspeciesin... [] []

      • Well I am sorry but the wikipedia article for the horshoe crab found off the Atlantic and gulf coasts state that they are not presently endangered. []
        • The very sentence you linked to contains this tidbit:

          harvesting and habitat destruction have reduced its numbers at some locations and caused some concern for this animal's future.

          So okay, not technically endangered, by the scientific definition, but certainly the "near threatened" status would suggest that it's a good idea to not just kill them indiscriminately. In fact, wouldn't that be a good idea regardless?

          • Yet you ignored the preceding sentences to pick that tid bit out. You also fail to understand that they are NOT KILLING THEM. They take some blood and then release them far from where they are capturing them to harvest the blood. THe very WIki article I linked to describes this in detail if you so choose.

            LAL is obtained from the animals' blood. Horseshoe crabs are returned to the ocean after bleeding, although some 3% die during the process. Studies show the blood volume returns to normal in about a week, though blood cell count can take two to three months to fully rebound.[24]

            So three percent of them die, Frankly I am not that worried about that.

            • No, I understand entirely that they're not killing them. I say that's a good thing. I'm also not worried about 3% of them dying as that certainly seems reasonable when compared against the benefits of harvesting their blood. I was merely commenting on the fact that you seemed to be representing their status as not endangered at all - when that's the only sentence you write, you come off as someone that's annoyed by the fact that we're not just killing them, instead of the catch-and-release that actually

              • Your previous post:

                t's a good idea to not just kill them indiscriminately

                Did not lead me to believe you understood entirely. So yes I did type that part in caps to emphasize that fact. I will keep it in mind to use the bold tags in the future.

                I do not condone just killing animals for no reason, but killing 3% of the horeshoe crabs (for a good reason) does not even show up on my radar. My main point with the one liner is that they are not nearly as endangered/threatened as the person I was replying to had implied.

                If the animals were actually endangere

      • by ksheff ( 2406 )
        Then it would make sense for the pharma companies to set up horseshoe crab farms where the crabs are raised specifically for their blood. That would also allow them to know exactly when blood was last collected from a batch of crabs.
    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      Does PITA know about this? /ducks and covers

      I remember seeing an environmental lobbying video 20 years ago that featured the LAL assay (the assay in TFA). Horseshoe crabs do not need to be killed to harvest their blood, and at least at that time they were a threatened species.

      I have no idea where PITA falls into this, but environmentalists in general should be all for properly managing and caring for this renewable resource.

      • by gnick ( 1211984 )

        Dag-nabbit. PITA is either Pain In The Ass or a type of bread. The "animals are people too" group (as opposed to the more rational, "people are animals too" group IMO) are PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

    • Does PITA know about this? /ducks and covers

      Pain In The Ass?

    • by doggo ( 34827 )

      Do they... at least give 'em a cup of juice after? And a cookie?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    At least it's a crappy Atlantic columnist making this horrific observation instead of the scientist who discovered this.

  • There are many people who say that we should let endangered species die out because they are unfit in the current environment and it is just natural for them to die off.

    This proves that some species could hold an amazing adaptation that could completely change how we live.

    • Horseshoe crabs are hardly a forgotten species when they breed on beaches outside your back door...

      Maybe this guy also forgot about the baby fur seals until somebody showed him a picture.

    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      I remember watching an environmental video in 1994 or so that featured the horseshoe crab for precisely this reason. They're actually a remarkable creature - I think they're only indigenous to the Delmarva region and they're basically living fossils. The blood is collected without harming the crab.

      • "The blood is collected without harming the crab." Except, of course, for the (self-reported) 10-30% that TFA says die from the procedure or those females with potentially altered fertility. At least synthesised alternatives are in the (patent-encumbered) mill so the critters can just be left in peace.

    • by N1AK ( 864906 )

      This proves that some species could hold an amazing adaptation that could completely change how we live.

      But by trying to keep the world the same as it was 30 years ago we will invariably cause other species to die out and stop the evolution of other species that are better adapted to current conditions. My biggest, and basically only, issue with 'conservationism' is that is anti-change for anti-change's sake. Why are we re-introducing some animals to areas where they died out hundreds of years ago but not o

  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:24PM (#46349245)
    Why is it postmodern technology? Because it deconstructs the cells? ;-)
  • WTF ? (Score:2, Redundant)

    by vikingpower ( 768921 )
    I mean, really: wtf ??
  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:25PM (#46349255)
    Before this discovery, they used to inject rabbits with the substance being tested, and measured if the rabbits got a fever. It was obviously not a great way to do things. Wasn't very quantifiable or sensitive. Source [].

    Another bit of trivia: one of the other major commercial uses of horseshoe crabs is cutting them up for bait. Works well for that, but you obviously use up the crabs quickly. So we can inconvenience them for a life-saving medical wonder, or we can kill them for a few pounds of fish to eat. Naturally, using them as bait has not been outlawed.

    One last bit of trivia: this isn't really news. I mean, I obviously find it cool, but seriously, 1960 was the discovery. Beta isn't bad enough, now they're altering the content too?
    • by Peristaltic ( 650487 ) * on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:49PM (#46349573)

      One last bit of trivia: this isn't really news. I mean, I obviously find it cool, but seriously, 1960 was the discovery. Beta isn't bad enough, now they're altering the content too?

      I, for one, cannot wait until the story headlined: "Justin Beiber's Totally RAD new computer!" hits the front page.

      Maybe a new poll: "What color is your iPad?"

    • One last bit of trivia: this isn't really news. I mean, I obviously find it cool, but seriously, 1960 was the discovery. Beta isn't bad enough, now they're altering the content too?

      Perhaps they're trying to steal this awesome column [] from hackaday. I really wish they'd quite trying to make slashdot into something it's not...

    • by mythosaz ( 572040 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @04:15PM (#46349879)

      Along the same lines, I imagine kids today have no idea what The Rabbit Done Died means.

      I recall watching MASH* as a kid and still knowing the reference. I imagine it's all but forgotten today.

      [Wikipedia tells me S6, Ep19...]

      • weird, I only knew "the rabbit done died" from Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion. And yeah, I'm old enough to remember that song when it was new. Maybe the MASH* episode isn't as pervasive as you think, even among us older folk.
        • I can't remember which I became familiar with first.

          Sweet Emotion came out in '75, before I was much of a music fan. I recall being truly introduced to it in '85 or so. ...but I don't think that I honestly understood the line.

          The MASH episode aired in early '78. We watched MASH in my house, so I'm sure I saw it when it aired, but I'm not sure I had put all the pieces together at the first run of the episode; I was a gradeschooler then.

          Probably shortly after getting acquainted to Sweet Emotion in the mid-8

      • Obligatory link [] for those who don't know what the phrase means. I used Snopes instead of Wikipedia because they actually have a video snippet of the MASH episode in.
    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      "One last bit of trivia: this isn't really news. I mean, I obviously find it cool, but seriously, 1960 was the discovery."

      Who cares. It's clearly stuff that matters, and fits well with the science and technology focus of Slashdot. It's nice to see Slashdot can still post something interesting.

    • Actually the capturing of horseshoe crabs has been recently restricted in New Jersey and Deleware and outright banned in Sought Carolina. As it turns out this "forgettable" species provides food in the form of eggs to a number of migratory shorebirds that are in decline. The decline is partially blamed on the over fishing of the horseshoe crab.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:26PM (#46349273)

    It's one of the big arguments for environmentalism and bio diversity. When push comes to shove you sometimes hear "so what if a few species go extinct? They weren't doing all that well before $BUSINESSACTIVITY, why should we try saving them? Why do I care about this species?". And the answer is that the creature represents a massive chain of thousands to millions of generations of genetic experimentation in real-world real-time environments. We're just starting to open Pandora's box of genetics and culling the biodiversity of the planet could be throwing away truly helpful and useful tools we could use in the future.

    Plus genocide is just sort of a dick move.

  • We should probably figure out how to breed them in captivity before we go slitting a million throats every 2 years...
    • by drkim ( 1559875 )

      They don't kill them - they drain a little blood and release them in an area where they won't be picked up again.

    • Quoting the article: "Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive" I think this makes them far from endangered although that is quite a lot of crabs to be caught by one company. Good riddance I say! Who wants a giant shelled scorpion spider crawling in our shallow waters anyway?
    • by QRDeNameland ( 873957 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:48PM (#46349549)

      According to Wikipedia, they are not an endangered species though there are reports of declining populations. As to breeding them in captivity:

      Raising horseshoe crabs in captivity has proven to be difficult. Some evidence indicates mating only takes place in the presence of the sand or mud in which the horseshoe crab's eggs were hatched. Neither what is in the sand that the crab can sense nor how they sense it is known with certainty.

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        Seems like a good opportunity for someone to buy a crabby beach and set up a farm. You could harvest blood all year, and probably cheaper than the catch and release approach. If you did it right you might even be able to use the beach as a beach (for people) and during breeding season convert it into a ecotour destination.

        • These things are scavengers that roam over a wide area. That kind of organism is difficult to farm.

          • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

            So are condors, yet zoos keep them because there isn't much choice.

            $15,000 a quart is often good incentive to try and do difficult things. I'm sure it's difficult to keep them alive while you get them to your factory, bleed them just the right amount, and then take them to a distant location for release too, but it sounds like the companies do it to steer clear of fishing laws. It might well be economical to farm them if the catch and release plan were a little more expensive.

    • by kumanopuusan ( 698669 ) <goughnourc AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @04:31PM (#46350033)

      They're not endangered and they don't have throats. Also, before you ask, they're not crabs and they're not horseshoes.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Here's how it went down...

      Every year since before I was born the horseshoe crabs have swarmed and spawned. Big Business (in the form of the tourism industry) hated this and encouraged farmers to grind them up for fertilizer - they literally ran heavy equipment up and down the beach scraping up the crabs, and farmers lined up with their trucks to take the crabs away and run them through grinders. Naturally, tax dollars funded a lot of this.

      Then somebody found a pharma use for their blood.

      Between the farmer

  • " I don't know about you, but the idea that every single person in America who has ever had an injection has been protected because we harvest the blood of a forgettable sea creature with a hidden chemical superpower makes me feel a little bit crazy. This scenario is not even sci-fi, it's postmodern technology.'"

    What? I think you are assuming that we share you beliefs that this is somehow wrong or soemthing? Or are you just marvelled at scietific acomplishments? Or are you the guy with the beret from xkcd,

  • I don't think very many people eat them (not much meat on em) and as far as intelligence goes, maybe as about as intelligent as your average flying invertebrate?

    • Horseshoe crabs have been around for more than 400 million years. There are not many limbed animals that have survived with mostly the same design for that long. They are a wonder of nature. In the tech world, they would be roughly comparable to IBM System/360-dirived mainframes....except they still have the same horse-power, or should I say horse-shoe power.

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @03:49PM (#46349569)

    When I go to donate blood, am I in a room of people being "Bled Alive"? Technically yes but there's a good reason that term is not used to draw people to donate blood, and is also rather a bit much in this case too.

    • I suppose if you have 30% of your blood extracted, and have a 10-30% chance of dying, then you are bled alive.

      • by N1AK ( 864906 )

        and have a 10-30% chance of dying

        Even if that was a line in the sand it's irrelevant given that ~97% of horseshoe crabs survive.

    • Depends. If you're kidnapped to the blood donation center and had your skin pierced and blood forcibly "removed" (I try not to use "bleed") from your body, while you are not dead yet, I suppose it fits the definition of being "bled alive".

  • I would call it "post-modern" if we had figured out how to synthesize coagulogen in the lab - negating the need for harvesting horseshoe crabs. Pssst, don't spread the word about GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) was discovered.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Horseshoe crabs are now grossly over fished; some for medical and some for eel bait. The rarer they get, the higher the price and the more fishermen want them, thus resulting is a crash.

    The crash destroyed the food supply of a rare shorebird called the Red Knot that depends on horseshoe crab eggs in the Spring during their migration. So they arrive exhausted and hungry in the DelMar area, but there is now no food. So the population of Red Knots has crashed.

  • "This is exactly what those environmentalists should be spending their time on: Finding ways to use nature against other forms of nature that are inconvenient to man."
  • Do you mean it's described in meaningless subjective polysyllabic dialog and the results are a social construct?

    Surely NOT. This is a scientific result. Rational, objective and modernist to the core.

  • "Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic: 'The marvelous thing about horseshoe crab blood, though, isn't the color."

    I'd suggest color be damned, the marvelous thing about them is that their blood isn't iron based, but copper based; 1 - a clear proof of convergent evolution; 2 - just really damn neat; and, 3 - proof that Spock, having deep green blood, must not be from a species that uses copper as a blood base (a fantastic way to make diehard trekkies squirm).

  • News? (Score:4, Informative)

    by RedShoeRider ( 658314 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @05:01PM (#46350409)
    As someone said, it's not exactly new. LAL testing has been boilerplate standard for better than 20 years now.

    From a lab tech's point of view, LAL testing is brilliant. Mix 10mL of some sample that's supposedly "clean" into a premade LAL test kit. Snap the lid shut. Shake. Incubate for a day. If it changes color, it's positive for endotoxins. If it stays clear, it's negative. Simple as that. And being that the sensitivity is picograms/mL, it's great. Knowing the backstory is neat, too, from the tech's view. Which I am.

    • That's great. Awesome. Knowing your profession is neat too, from a completely random stranger's point of view. Which I am.

  • by Morpeth ( 577066 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @05:01PM (#46350411)

    Seriously? Such an enlightened attitude.

    Actually one of the strongest memories I have as a young child was coming across a horseshoe crab at a beach, it was in shallow water -- and it both scared the sh*t out of me, and had me intensely fascinated for a good long while. When an adult picked it up so I could see its underside and all those moving legs, I was absolutely, positively, enthralled. Nothing forgettable about it...

  • They place them on your face where they attach themselves but eventually fall off. Your blood is highly acidic then but it kills all bacteria and viruses.
  • What is more remarkable, is that these creatures have been around for hundreds of millions of years, almost unchanged. They only seem to have grown tails over this period.

The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity -- the rest is overhead for the operating system.