On being ... another piece of the puzzle

 By Ingrid Sapona 

Have you ever heard of a horseshoe crab? I’m tempted to say, “me either”, but there probably are a few readers more knowledgeable than me about all sorts of things – including crustaceans.  

Anyway, it was this title from an article in The Conversation that got me curious about these crabs: “Horseshoe crab blood is vital for testing intravenous drugs, but new synthetic alternatives could mean pharma won’t bleed this unique species dry”. It wasn’t so much the idea of there being a species called the horseshoe crab that caught my attention – it was fact that they have blood that surprised me. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but initially I wondered if the part about not bleeding the species dry was just a hook meant to lure non-science-y readers (like me). So, before deciding whether to take the time to read the article, I googled horseshoe crabs. I was curious about what they look like and whether they have blood. (Yes, they do have blood.) 

Armed with a visual image of the horseshoe crab, I read the article. It was fascinating on many levels. I learned that their blood is used to produce a substance (LAL is the acronym) that’s used to test for toxic substances (endotoxins) in vaccines and intravenous drugs. Apparently testing drugs using LAL was an accidental discovery in the 1950s and 1960s. A pathobiologist and medical researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory noticed the crabs’ blood coagulated in a curious manner. Think about that statement a minute. It means they knew what normal coagulation of crab blood looks like! Anyway, after observing this they did experiments and found that endotoxin was the coagulant. From there they devised a method of extracting LAL from the crab blood. By the 1990s LAL became the normal method for testing medicines for endotoxin. (In case you’re wondering, they take up to 30% of the crab’s blood for this purpose. The crabs are returned to the ocean, but it’s unclear how many die due to this process.) 

The article authors, academics at Rochester Institute of Technology, published a paper examining the social, political, and economic issues associated with using these crabs to produce LAL. Hundreds of thousands of the crabs are harvested every year for this purpose and conservationists are worried. Besides the welfare of the crabs, millions of shorebirds rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food as they migrate. (Yet another example of the interconnectedness of all of us on planet earth.) 

Before use of LAL, the medical standard for testing drugs involved injecting rabbits. The article included a photo of bunnies in a lab that was simply shocking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that scientists came up with the idea of first testing drugs on animals, as I would be loath to volunteer in their place. But I imagine a similar process is used to test cosmetics, so that photo was enough to make me vow to only buy cosmetics from manufacturers that certify they don’t use animals for testing. 

I read a lot of mainstream news. But I also love articles like the one about the crab blood and it’s not because I’m harbouring some desire to be on Jeopardy. Articles like that drive home the complexity of the world. They also help me appreciate how diverse peoples’ interests are. More importantly, they make vivid the interconnectedness of the world, providing examples of the myriad consequences of every action, many of which are beyond most of our imaginations. 

The more I learn, the more I see life as a jigsaw puzzle. Each tidbit of news or knowledge is a puzzle piece. And, while each puzzle piece is interesting on its own, when it’s combined with a few other odd-shaped pieces you get a view of at least a section of the puzzle. Of course, the jigsaw puzzle of life will never be complete. But, discovering how different pieces you come across fit together helps you see more of the puzzle, which, in turn, makes you hungry for more puzzle pieces. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona  


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