Listener supported W NYC Studios'. Pay the Sajad Radiolab going to replay an episode that we made back in 2018, because it's a good one.
First foremost and also we got some pretty surprising Corona virus related updates to it, which we're going to share near the end of the episode. So first, here's the original and then we'll come back and talk a little bit with.
You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. I'm Robert Krulwich. Tony Beach Pickering, great. Yeah, go down 13. You're going to see this. You're going to see the store or right here. You see a liquor store. Right hand side. You make you go make a left. That's Barath. Actually, this Barbie and this. Oh, it's how Bower's speech is. Reporter Lots of Natsuko.
OK, I'm going to go to you don't want to go. OK. So three years ago, the peer to peer down, three or four years ago, I taking the bus down to Delaware and I stayed in this crappy hotel and then woke up super early like five a.m. still dark out to hop in his cap on.
You have got me really excited. Let me tell you, it's the place just started working at Radiolab. This is like my first. First time I'd been sent out to it. I like to just go out and get tape.
We could talk to anybody or anybody lives or maybe could be glad to. Totally awesome. Awesome. And the whole reason why I was headed down to this speech was to record myself communing with a horseshoe crab.
Have you ever held one looks as a giver? I've never had one in my hands. I would love to hold one in my hand. Rory, you seem very far away. I know it's a concern as it might have again.
Can you just explain?
We sent Latife down to that beach because a few weeks earlier. All right, everybody say something.
Hello. Hello. Robert and I had sort of fallen into this rabbit hole. Hello. We'd spoken with a guy named Alexis Madrigal, who is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
How did you get onto horseshoe crabs? Where did that start? I it was late at night and I was reading through this site where all these crazy press releases are published called Eureka Alert Dot Com.
And I happened to see this really tiny study which had the unpromising name, sublethal behavior and physiological effects of the biomedical bleeding process on the American horseshoe crab Limitless Polyphemus.
And I thought this is going to be my big story this year. And then I went and I did that thing that we do now, you know, horseshoe crab and then Google images.
And there on the screen, according to Alexis, he saw these pictures of a bunch of horseshoe crabs kind of propped up on these metal racks. And they were all kind of tied in place. They were all in a row and they all had these thin little plastic tubes coming out of their shells, all of them.
And underneath them are what looked like kind of a two liter bottle.
And there's blue blood in it, blue like baby blue blood. And what was just so fascinating is the strange blood. It turns out to be the least interesting part of the story, like at some level, like it's just the visual that draws you in.
Because inside their strange blood, the horseshoe crabs have a kind of superpower. It's one that has helped them survive hundreds of millions of years as the earth has changed, as other species have come and gone. And it hasn't just been saving their butts. It's been saving ours for decades.
Nearly all of modern medicine would not be possible without this special little thing in their blood. But. He might all be about to change. Oh, wow. Oh, no. Even over there. One thing that it does that is really cool is it has a prom, a sex prom every spring. Well, you know, we should do we should all go together. Oh, isn't it like it's your turn. It's the it's.
It's in June and it's on the first full moon of June.
Alexis, you want to go? I do want to go. Let's go. Which is where I come in. Test, test, test. Test, test. Right. Because it ended up being that Robert and Alexis and I actually couldn't go.
And then it was like, oh, okay. Then send it. Send the new guy, you know?
No, I mean, at the time it was like you were just milling around the office and you looked like maybe you needed an adventure. So we were like, hey, do you want to go see these crabs? Like to see the six months?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Business in front of me. So anyway, so I go. And then when I got there, it was still pretty early. Like maybe six, seven in the morning. It was a little bit rainy. But when you walked down the beach, it was just littered in probably thousands of horseshoe crabs. This is what a horseshoe crab down like. Yeah, there's kind of no way to hear it. We just so we get a visual like what does a horseshoe crab look like?
Kind of like a semi circle. And then there's kind of like this front shield's part. And then there's the tail. And a I would call it a scuttling catcher's mitt. Yeah. Not bad.
Not bad. So there were these hordes of scuttling catchers, mitts, you know, scuttling around and they actually move really slowly. A lot of them had been knocked upside down by the waves and you could see their soft underbelly. They have these 10 lobster like legs.
And and then walking around them were a bunch of people, a crab with that one. Many of them were from a big pharmaceutical company, which will make sense in a second. But I'm glad my guide for this morning on the beach was a guy named Glen. Nice to meet you. Glenn, go. Very thin guy, short hair, wearing socks and sandals. And I'm the founder and director, the ecological research and development guru and often is.
Is it true? I thought you guys on your resume and you were in the Air Force. I was. I was. I was an air traffic controller. And the first time I saw Horseshoe Prizes in 1969 when I was stationed at Dover Air Force Base, which is right near by being a young guy. Down to the beach looking for something that might be going on in nice hours, you crash. It was until many years later that I kind of looped around into this thing.
But that was the first time I saw them sort of saw some horseshoe crabs and kind of weirdly fell in love with them and became really their, like, champion.
They're not all that attractive unless you've been around them awhile. I find them quite beautiful. Who are you now? Glenn now leads these, you know, educational tours of horseshoe crabs.
Especially at this time of the year. And he walked me up and down the beach, painstakingly explaining to me the rules of the you know, of this X prof. Look at him.
The larger ones are females. There's a male at one point.
He pointed out to crabs that were stuck together. So that guy that's attached to that female. That's his gal.
Now we're like locked to one another, stuck upside down, which makes it harder for them to write themselves.
Like, right now, it's surface rough enough where if they were separate, there's a good chance it would flip them over and they'd be OK.
But because he's hanging in there now, the likelihood of that happening becomes more remote.
He'll die with her. Like this is like a blockbuster romance here.
This is like. Yeah, I mean, you know, you had to go back to remember Burt Lancaster on the beach. You know, I forget what movie that was. Was it the waves crashing over? And that was symbolic of the romance. And they were both in bathing suits, you know, embracing one another and nobody.
Nobody. So we've got to go to an animal world version of that going on at the beach. And Glenn's romantic. I just painted this sex orgy as a beautiful flowering like mating season, like spring in nature, a kind of a beautiful thing. But I realize really quickly was like, ah, there's like nagging that road.
The reality of it was kind of horrifying. If you had a threesome, there'd be like piles of crabs trying to have sex with each other.
Yeah. Exactly. Big trains of them all hooked together. And they would be like going in the wrong direction all the time. Like you'd see like one crab in the middle. Like a female, like a bigger one. Plus gripping.
And then three or four males, like all trying to mate with this one crowd at the same time.
And then when you look even closer, it turned out the female crab was dead like this weird like necrophiliac for some of crabs. It was it was it was kind of raunchy, actually.
Like glasses are getting all.
But while it was standing, watching all this, you know, hurly burly of crab sex, I was struck by what I think is one of the central questions of this story because it's almost impossible not to notice.
That looks like there's a lot of these horseshoe crabs are really banged up.
Oh. Goes right through. Like chunks of their shells are missing. Their eyes are missing and they're walking. Some of them, they have holes that you could see their legs underneath and they're all just fine. They just have all these kind of crazy what would seem to be fatal injuries.
But they're all just kind of walking around like it's no big deal. Just consider it on the species level. So, like like here's a creature that has lasted hundreds of millions of years. It outlasted the dinosaurs and the asteroid that killed them. It outlasted freezing oceans. It so far has survived the industrial age of humans. And you look at it, you're like, how? What's its secret?
And it turns out that part of the answer to that has to do with that baby blue blood. This is Alexis Madrigal again. So our blood is red because hemoglobin is rich in iron. Right. And their blood is blue because it's rich in copper. So their molecule that carries oxygen for them is called Hemo Simonon. But what's really interesting about this blood is this chemical system of slowing down bacteria. So say you're a horseshoe crab and in your blood there's a little bit of bacteria maybe got through in a crack in your shell.
Anyway, in your blood. Are these cells called amoeba site, his oval cells that are sort of on patrol in the bloodstream?
And when they encounter a particular kind of bacteria, the amoeba sites, these oval cells excrete this substance called coagulation, which does exactly what it sounds like, the area around where the intruders are just like Luke.
Turns into this like jelly stuff. That bacteria that snuck in. Traps them like a grape trapped in a bowl of jello. Wow, that crack in the shell. The amoeba sites seal that off, too.
And what does it do with the gel? Then is it poop it out or something?
Then it then it can actually attack the cells once they've been slowed down. So it blob's the invader and then Mowbray's it. And then some other defense defenders come in and they can take it out, take it out.
And this superpower fighting its tiny battles and the bodies of these rather plain looking creatures. Had you touched one of these guys before. First time. How did it feel? Is the reason why people from pharmaceutical companies were on the beach that day.
Libya? Yeah, you do idea, because this thing that's been playing out for literally millions of years.
One day humans started to catch on to this.
And one human in particular morning to explain.
We're going to leave the horseshoe crab just for a minute and talk a little bit about injectable drugs that scientists and innovator James Cooper.
Any relation to James Fenimore Cooper of like The Last of the Mohicans guy?
His name is James Fenimore Cooper. He was named after James Fenimore Cooper and his son is also named James Fenimore Cooper.
Wow. Wow. But anyway but anyway, this James Fenimore Cooper told us that while it was a total miracle when injectable drugs like morphine came onto the scene, it was also a bit of a nightmare because they didn't know about bacteria.
Occasionally the fluids they were injecting would become contaminate. As soon as they inject this materials that patients get infections and develop terrible fevers or even die, they can be incredibly dangerous to us.
And so to make sure these drugs were free of bacteria that caused fevers, they didn't just, you know, tried on a person and see if they died.
They checked it on a rabbit and they would have like like racks and racks of rabbits, like 24 rabbits in Iraq. They are restrained by the neck rather loosely.
I mean, like a pilgrim being punished in the town square. Exactly right. And then they take a little sample of the thing they wanted to inject into a person and then they would inject that into the rabbit's ear. And if there's certain kinds of bacteria present, the rabbits will get a fever. Their temperature will go up. And the way they measured their temperature was with these electric thermometers up their bombs. So if the rabbits temperature goes up, we know we shouldn't put this drug inside a person.
But if there's no temperature spike, this solution is safe to inject into man or woman or children or really anyone.
So that's how crude it was. And it turns out this test wasn't really that reliable either, because rabbits are like pretty sensitive. So even if sometimes they'll, like, see a new person and they'll get scared and then they'll just have a fever because of that.
So it is really it was not a great test, not great for us, especially not great for the rabbits after they would go through a few tests, sometimes even after only one.
They just they kill them. And to Rabbit Hall of Famer James Fenimore Cooper. My joke is that I love to talk to rabbits because they're all ears, you know.
So anyway, back in the late 60s, Cooper was a grad student at Johns Hopkins University and one day one of his professors came up to him in the in the hall or wherever.
And kind of jokingly, maybe somewhat seriously, says Cooper, if you want to get out of this institution with your degree, you're going to need to find a way to test for pierogies by something other than the rabbit, basically find a better way.
That was sort of a joke, although I think he admits some of it. Lucky for Cooper, around the same time, this other professor at his university, Dr. Levin, had just come out with a paper on how horseshoe crab blood could theoretically be used to test for bacteria in people.
And hearing Dr. Levin present about it.
Dr. Cooper sat back in his chair and was like, wait a second. Oh, what if we use the horseshoe crab blood to test our drugs? Would it be possible then to take this test and adapted to test drug products and we wouldn't have to kill all of those rabbits.
So they got together, made the test work.
And as soon as we made that publication in 71, then the pharmaceutical industry jumped right on it.
And so this particular chemical substance, it's coagulation in the horseshoe crab blood actually became a major part of the way that we test things that we're gonna inject into our body in every hospital. As you walk down the the cadre. You look in a room, there's an I.V. bag hanging surgical instruments on a tray. Injectables for pain, infections. Your dad's pacemaker, Cantera chemotherapy. Your grandmas new hip, your kids, EpiPen, immunization shots.
All of these things have been tested with this material. This this test that we're able to do using this chemical that we extract from horseshoe crabs. This 450 million year old species. Yep. But in order to do all of that, in order to actually, you know, keep our medicines safe, they actually have to go out every year and and drain horseshoe crab blood.
Seriously, they have to keep doing this all every year. Yeah. They go, wow, they get the crabs every year. They drain their blood and then they go put them back out into the ocean. It's like a like a like a like a horseshoe crab blood drive. And they'll the whole I mean it's there are a bunch of companies that do this and the whole industry is worth, you know, like. Tens of millions of dollars. And so I really, really wanted to see this all in action, like I wanted to go to one of these bleeding facilities after the break.
Latife in a very special guest, will do just that. They will infiltrate. So to speak. One of these bleeding facilities. And witness the baby blue blood drive firsthand. That's coming up.
Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a science foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
This is Radiolab. We're back with lots of Nassr reporting on horseshoe crabs and the scientists who love them, or at least love. They're a very valuable blood. Maybe them, too, but mostly they're blood. And therein lies the rub.
So they're basically like, I think four or five companies that go out find horseshoe crabs and then extract their blood. And I wanted to see, like, what is it look like? So I sent out a few e-mails and then I was e-mailing these companies for like three years and nobody ever returned my emails. I don't know why. Maybe they didn't want bad press or I don't know, maybe they weren't bleeding that year or whatever. And so I'd basically given up on the story.
But then this year, these folks at one of the companies called Charles River Laboratories and we're like, hey, why don't you just come down to Charleston, South Carolina, and watch what we do here?
So I went, I'm Roland. Let me double check. And along with me, I brai this just Lulu.
Hey, how's it going?
And Lulu Miller, you guys shine the horseshoe crabs signal on the moon and I come a run in with a little.
Miller is a former radio lab staffer. Actually, she is the first radio lab staff member besides myself, Robert and Ellen, and she is a cocreator of NPR's invisibility. How did you get in on this?
I weirdly have had affection for these creatures my whole life. I like grew up with them. They're some of my first memories. What do you remember seeing? I remember seeing what I thought was a crab.
I was like probably three or four on the beach with my parents and Cape Cod, where we've gone my whole life. And and I just remember walking on the beach and seeing this like massive crab in a third of the size of my body, basically. And I remember kind of jumping back and my dad saying, oh, take it a poke at it, you know, interact. And so I kind of turned it over and I saw those claws and I got scared.
And then he, you know, he showed me it wasn't a lie. That was a molt. Oh. And he explained what a mote was, that there had been a crab in there and it slid out. And now was this perfectly intact skin of what it used to be.
And you wonder, like, well, where is it now and what's it doing now? And do I ever leave a self behind or. No, it's just little. And I thought it was cool and we brought it back to our porch. I remember that it sat on our porch for years and like, the dog would sniff at it.
Where are we going? There. Just ever since then, there's just been a like, mild poetic fascination.
Visitors report to build a building. See, so I think.
And Lulu, did you have a feeling about this business of any sort before you went and visited?
Yeah, there's a part of me, though, that wondered, like, oh, I totally love these creatures. Is this big, bad company just exploiting it for their blood? And, you know, I went with a little skepticism. DAWIDOFF Great thing.
You know, an eyebrow down and scratched to the bleeding facility was just in this kind of understated, nondescript office park land.
There's like people in Capri pants and sandals.
Basically from the outside, it looks like every other one storey brick building. But then when you go on the inside, suddenly you're hit with this like I can smell it. Wash of a smell of crab.
Hey. Wow. Now, how would you describe that smell? Kind of a crab mist. Yeah, it's a high ceiling, brightly lit room with industrial things along one wall. These shiny metal operating trays on wheels. And no matter where we were standing, we just sort of managed to be divided. Like exactly. In the way. In your way, though, of all these busy people rushing around in lab coats, they're wearing hairnet, gloves, and they're pushing around these big gray bins on wheels.
And inside each bin are the horseshoe crabs twisting and turning a little wave in their tail, all heaped on top of each other, about 20 per bin flex in their claws.
So we have our crabs coming in from our supplier. That's Brad Parrish, our guide. He explained to us that there are two parts to the blood donation. We start by washing the animals, scrub the shell off the barnacle ball. They spray it. Dunk it back.
That and the it of which you speak are living animal. Yeah, like one at a time. These smooth's shells are passed person to person, rinsed and shining.
It's like wonca land for crabs. It's like a world. Yeah. In a way.
Once they're washed the rack of one, two, three, it's time for the bleeding. 16 crabs. We'll know we're going to go. Crabs are taken out of their bins, folded in half. So their tails are kind of underneath and they're put on these racks where they're strapped down with a bungee cord to hold them in place.
And then they're wheeled into this tent, which is like a clean room zone that's like like got these sort of like plastic curtains all around.
We go. We go in. We can. Oh, we can't go in. OK. And he didn't let us go in there because as regular bacteria carrying humans, we were far too dirty to enter this super, super clean. But we could peek right in. And when we did, we saw that right at that fold in the crab's body, right at that hinge.
There's like a little opening and the needle goes in there.
And he was from that needle that this blood is like. Brilliant.
Yeah, kind of sci fi sky blue blood was slowly dripping into these glass bottle.
And the crabs are kind of like their claws are going, but they just kind of look like they're sitting there and they're draining them of about a third of their blood.
What is your emotional sense of this scene?
Like, it was kind of this feeling, some sort of like what we're doing here is weird and kind of vampire free?
I don't know. It was like witch sucking their blood. So there's a little there was a little creepy.
Like when so lots of like I feel like when we were in there, there's like so many. We were in the factory, dozens and dozens of boxes filled each with like ten huge crabs.
And we were in that. Yeah. In that processing zone. And before we went in, saw the blood. This like may sound cheesy, but it was actually profound. And I keep thinking about it. There was this moment.
OK. So here. OK. What are we looking at? Can I touch you? When one of the guys in the factory. Oh sure. He had pulled out from these bins this big female horseshoe crabs.
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah I do. And he's just sort of holding her by the shell. Well, the tail is really coming right at me here. So her little claws are going up and her tails kind of waving around. Right. So there's a lot of it. Yeah. Club activity. Exactly.
And so we'll take these calls and he like, turned her over. So she's upside down. And then he took his hand and just let her claws kind of grab his hand.
And so there's sort of pinching my hands here, but it doesn't hurt. There's not much power to him. They're just using that to sort of grab the food penetrating into their mouth. I get a little pins connected.
And so I just kind of slowly stuck my hand out toward her claws and her claws, like, engulfed my hand.
Oh, here. Oh, they're very, very classy. It wasn't a scrabbling kind of like for in touch. They all the claws clasped in unison really tight.
It's actually kind of it's kind of a massage. So I am being like this. Horseshoe crabs is holding my hand.
Wow. To me.
And of course, this is just silly projecting. So I'm saying that. But like, it felt like I know it wasn't, but it felt like a communication. Like I'm in this band and these people are doing weird things and I want to be back in the sea and I'm upside down and I'm about to go into like, we'll have a sink. You know, one of those, like showerhead spray it all up in my undersides and then I'm going to be bungee corded and drained like it was almost it wasn't like it was in pain, but I had this almost like primal creature to creature help me.
Yeah. Like, I mean, part of me felt that too. But I mean, on the other hand, like, they, they do get to go home afterwards.
So the same fishermen that bring the crabs to us are then going to deliver them back to the ocean and release them. They're set free. Straight back to the water in how many crabs did they do this to? Every year, about 500000 horseshoe crabs every year get blood to the crabs to get bled and then released.
I mean, do they just swim away fine. Or today? So some of them do die after the bleeding. There's a small percentage like I think the conservative estimate is around like 10 percent, but that might be a high estimate or maybe as low as I am.
I don't think it's so it's 14, 15 percent. So let's say like 15 percent. So if you're talking about five hundred thousand crabs being bled every year, that means about 75000 horseshoe crabs are dying because of bleeding every year.
You know, they actually in that original paper that I looked at again, Alexis Madrigal, they were actually able to see that a lot of the crabs don't have, like blad crabs and non bled crabs, like have slightly different movement patterns. And that's because, you know, maybe one of them is missing 30 percent of its blood, but they needed to they needed to double check on that. And so they did see that the blad animals appear more lethargic.
They move, you know, more slowly. And like, imagine if imagine if you had to go, like, harvest deer and then bleed them off 30 percent of their blood and then you'd, like, leave them back out in the forest. There's something about that that seems so.
Yeah, it seems very medieval.
Is there any hope of getting out of this whole vampire relationship we have with the horseshoe crabs?
And let me tell you a brief story about a bird smallish bird cinnamon in color with a long bill. It's called a red knot. Now, incredible thing about red knots is of all the birds in the world. The red not makes one of the longest migrations nearly ten thousand miles. They go from the very southern tip of South America all the way up to northern northern Canada, up into the Arctic Circle where they lay their eggs. And the whole journey takes about five months.
And what happens is thousands of these red, not birds, will take off from South America. They'll fly like 4000 miles north up to Brazil, and they'll stop them for just like a couple days, rest up, eat some food. And then the thousands of them take the skies again and they fly up along the eastern coast of South America over the Atlantic Ocean. But before they get to their final nesting grounds, they make one more stop.
One pivotal, crucial rest stop in the Delaware Bay. Yeah.
Now, when I was in Delaware, there weren't like a ton of birds there.
But basically these birds, when they make this journey, they rely on horseshoe crabs because you've been noticing all the eggs they need to eat.
Millions of horseshoe crab eggs to complete their migration.
Cluster, right? Oh. Well, we really care for it.
And this is the thing. It's a weirdly. These birds that might actually free the horseshoe crabs from us. Yeah. Yeah. And to explain, I got in touch with this guy. My name is Jay Bolden, a biologist in the Global Quality Laboratories that Eli Lilly and Company.
So Eli Lilly and Co. It's this huge pharmaceutical company that makes, you know, cancer drugs and anti-depressants. A lot of insulin and things like that.
And real quick, people are at the core of our commitment to manufacturing. Here's a message from an executive and the driving force behind our innovation.
Radiolab is brought to you by anyway. One of the things the company has been helping innovate is horseshoe crab blood. A synthetic version of horseshoe crabs. Yeah. So, you know, Jay explained to me, if you kind of zoom out for a second and think about what it means to use horseshoe crab blood for this, you know, vital thing in medicine. The problem is there needs to be a supply of horseshoe crabs and, you know, global warming, global warming.
Climate change is real. Rising sea levels. Habitat loss. I could have some supply chain consequences, which isn't good. And so it was actually all the way back in 1997. Some researchers out of the University of Singapore cloned this. The factor, sea protein.
The essential factor, sea protein and horseshoe crab blood that goes group around the bad bacteria.
And now we can make the protein of interest instead of getting that directly from horseshoe crabs. So why aren't we already using that?
Yes. Well, Jay, explain that there's, you know, a whole bunch of different reasons. But one of the big ones was that you already had an industry built on horseshoe crab blood. And so there is no real immediate incentive to change.
Which is actually how we get back to our good friends, the birds.
So turns out people like these birds a lot. Actually, way more than horseshoe crabs. But since the birds eat the horseshoe crab eggs, their fate is kind of entwined. So, like, if the horseshoe crab is not doing well, then the birds are not going to do well. And so Jay figured, why don't I just go around to all the bird conservationists to use some of their political power and contacts. And it's only now that we're starting to come upon a new dawn.
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome here. It's a great place to be today. In May of 2018, Jay was standing on a stage, along with some conservationists, to announce that Eli Lilly would be one of the first companies to use synthetic horseshoe crab blood.
The big headline news here is that the pharmaceutical industry can actually replace probably up to 90 percent of the use of horseshoe crab blood without incurring any major regulatory change.
Which means these horseshoe crabs can finally be freed of their servitude and bondage to mankind and get back to doing a three.
What is going on? What? They love the big orgy.
Well, but here's the weird thing. I think, like if the synthetic comes through and we get it perfect and it works and we never have to drain another horseshoe crab, then they just become these weird kind of sea spiders again. And that that could be a really bad thing for them. Yeah, exactly.
This is actually something that Alexis Madrigal talks about, too, because most of the other things that these horseshoe crabs have ever been used for in the history of their encounter with humans has resulted in the death of like large numbers of them.
Because before we ever value them for their blood, we basically did two things with them. Thing one, we turned them into a fertilizer.
We would catch them, boil them and grind them and then just stick them in the soil as a way of promoting plant growth or thing to. Catch them, cut them up and use them to like as bait to catch more valuable species like particular kinds of snails.
OK. So I have right here in front of me. This comes from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which their numbers say that, you know, as of the late 90s, there were nearly three million horseshoe crabs being killed every year for commercial fishing. Three million. Wow. But more recently, we've put restrictions on how many horseshoe crabs can be used for commercial fishing, for bait. It's even like, you know, a lot of states it's a crime to go to a beach and just take a, you know, a bunch of horseshoe crabs, like in New Jersey.
If you take a horseshoe crab, you could get fined ten thousand dollars.
The thing that I've always wanted to keep in mind with this is like if you're going to have to be, you know, hooked up to some economic system, which most animals in our world are, you kind of want to be hooked up to one that's super high value and that doesn't kill you.
And so the fear is if like if the synthetic works and we no longer need horseshoe crabs for their precious blood, then we just go back to chopping them up, putting them in the ground and using them for bait because they live where we live.
They live along our most populous shore. And they're right there for the taking. You know, they're not prepared for our murderous impulse. Hi, I'm Latisse.
Nice to meet you. Nice to see you. Thanks for having us here in L.A..
And there was this moment where everything just kind of flipped for me.
You know, like where I realized that as cruel and kind of grizzly as the draining of the blood seems that actually may be the best thing for these creatures, like our selfishness, maybe protecting them.
Oh, you want to see some horseshoe crabs. So this is our very last stop on our trip down to South Carolina.
And we met this fisherman named Jerry Gault, who is employed to collect horseshoe crabs for the company, a peaceful little spot.
So we're in this forest.
Yeah. Now it just feels like I'm on a secluded place. No.
With Gerry walking around this little pond, I worthy.
Exactly wrong. I just saw the wrong thing. What's known as a holding pond where they put the crabs before they go off to the facility.
And while we were down there, when you got there, Gerry, like scooped some water out of the pond.
That's just bottled water. But then he held the bottle up to our faces. The babies were there. Oh, all of those.
Every. Oh, wow. There's so many of them. How many? Yeah, they do. One hundred thousand eggs in a season.
Wow. They're like the size of like a really round grain of rice furled cous cous.
Like are they, were they laying the eggs here or or did you get the eggs from them where you lay their eggs along the shore of shore. Oh literally right here.
Oh wow. Well so. So I feel like we heard a tiny bit about. But what's the what's the story of how you went from or your family went from being kind of seafood, you know, fishermen to Ted to doing this kind of crazy different thing? Well. We're just a bunch of fishermen with ADHD. But Jerry told us the gist of it is back when his dad was doing seafood fishing. You know, I was just attacked then.
I was in his 70s. His dad was catching a lot of horseshoe crabs, selling them off for bait. And then one day, this guy showed up at his house, suit and tie, told my dad that if he would quit selling them for bait, he'd make a deal for me.
He would buy them by him for more money. So Jerry's dad said, sure, we've been doing it ever since. And I got something I want you guys to know as a fisherman. I'm proud to be part of it. I find it to be. I want to say is the most noble thing I do because I get to touch every one of you guys because it's used for making sure medication is is safe for us. And can't say that about soft shell crabs or or goo grouper.
You know, you touch every and then you touch it again and return it. But I touch you indirectly, indirectly. I'm touching all of us here because we're a part of it. So it's pretty neat thing. If you had to describe your feelings for the crabs, for the horseshoe crabs, how do you feel about them?
Well, I have a lot of respect for them, and I almost feel like it's divine design. There was a crab is you know, I've seen them fish in form. You know, they're a nuisance then and now. I seem on the side where they're important to human society. And I just drives me back to the idea that is was divine design. And they've been around 400 million years. It took them this took us this long to figure it out, I guess.
A curiosity, where did that would that leave the two of you? Well, well, for me, I mean, Jerry, that the fisherman, he's he's totally right. We we just figured this out. These crabs have been, Clark, counting us this whole time. They have this hard won superpower that they've probably had since, you know, before like three branches on our evolutionary tree. And and in evolutionary terms, like like they're the winners were that were.
We're chumps. We're we're baby chump. And there's this like there is something miraculous inside them. And in a certain way, it's easy to stand next to them and feel almost small like that. We're not unlike an asteroid are just another thing they're probably going to endure, like we are a blip to them. And yet we're a dangerous blip.
And in a weird way, like people, the people we met down here, the people doing this work, this blood harvesting work. In a way, Canada represent the best way to treat the crabs. Exactly. Treat them like gangs.
There are these rules in place to make sure that the horseshoe crabs are only picked up by hand and you can't pick them up by the tail because you can enjoy them.
The mussel tail, we keep you covered. When we transport them, they're also on a time clock. We've got to get them back as quick as possible.
They have to be back to the ocean within 24 hours. When they get to the lab, we give it a manicure, pedicure. Each one gets scrubbed clean by hand.
And then they burrow some blood from it and bring it back and let it go. And he showed us how he returns them to the water. And he, like he built this freaking water slide slide to get down to do it more gently.
Now we pick him up, set him into this slide and the water takes him turn to the river. Before we used to pick him up and toss him. I mean, we've gone away from tossing him. It's amazing. I've got a slide of my dog, 200 foot long water slide where the rehydrate on our way to the river. SEAL says they do want to get your finger to squeeze as a holder. Yes. So this is the male estimate.
OK, females. And we just interrupted his embrace. His game is cuddling his country. OK, so that was the story that we made back in 2018. This is me now in the present, as I mentioned at the top of the show, there have been some corona virus related news happenings in the world of the horseshoe crab and lots of fin. I recently sat down to talk about it. So it has been it's been two years since we did that.
Sorry about Hirsche.
Craps two years. Oh, my God. Yeah. Feels like yesterday. I know. So we we did that. Sorry. It was about this like magical supersensitive stuff that we take from their blood that we actually I don't know how we manage to do this. We never even named it in this story. It's called L.A. l but I called up Dr. James Fenimore Cooper.
Hello. Who is the guy who's been working on this basically since the 60s? Just to say, like, what is new given everything that's going on in the world. Right. Tell me the story of L.A. L in the in the time of Kofod. What what how is how is it being used? What's going on?
Well, that's a good question. Course, the FDA will require the Alire agent to be used to test all of the vaccine batches that are produced, required for every vaccine right now.
So you're saying that no matter which one gets there first or, you know, however many get there first, they're all going to have to sort of as one of the final stages. They're all going to have to pass an L.A. L test, is that right? Yes. Huh? Yeah. But that doesn't even that's not even the extent of it for the vaccine. So even before they make the vaccines, Dr. Hooper says they have to test all of their ingredients.
So the formulation, their waters, their source, their buffers. Wow.
And then not only that, it doesn't even in there, in some cases, they also test the packaging. So like the glass vials and according to Dr. Cooper, they're like, that's already happening.
So, like, I imagine somewhere there's, you know, just vials sitting that are just like horseshoe crab approved and they're just waiting for their big moment, like they're just waiting to be filled up and, you know, shipped out.
That's it. Are there other ways that LTL has been used, like for this epidemic in particular besides the vaccine?
Well, it will have been used to test every medicine that is being injected and used to screen all the devices, needles and syringes, I.V. lines and things like that. It's used to test.
So imagine this. Okay, so imagine you're walking into a hospital, you have symptoms, you test positive for Cauvin 19. What happens after that? Right. So maybe doctor takes your blood or syringe used to do that to run whatever blood tests. The syringe used to take your blood. That's been tested with LDL before it left the factory. Let's say you get hooked up to I.V. fluids off those I.V. fluids would also be Horschel grab approved, as would be the I.V. bag, the tubes, the catheter going into your vein, let's say worst case scenario, you need to go on a ventilator, the tube going down your throat.
That is at sight of where it was manufactured. That would have also had to be tested with the with l'oeil, with the blood of Hauschka.
And it is true, I should say, that there are some certain companies like Eli Lilly that are in the process of making the switch to the synthetic version, recombinant factor C.. But but LDL is still the standard. Holy moly.
So it's like it's like it's everywhere. Wow. Super impressive. But then there's another sort of little bell that's ringing in my head, which is like, oh, no, like that means we're going to need a lot of extra horseshoe crab blood to do all this.
Right. Like on the supply side, given that there are so many vaccines in development, given that, won't it just use up a ton of the of the L.A. L.
Well, a number of months ago, the three major LBO producers got together and came up with a scenario that if they made five billion doses.
Doses of vaccine, you mean. Yeah. Vaccine. Yeah.
How much LDL was that require. And their calculations show that it would require a couple of days production. And then I made a second calculation yesterday and. And I use 10 times as much l'isle as they calculated. And I found out it still wouldn't use one percent of their inventory.
Whoa. That's that's reassuring. I know. I was about to say it's like in a in a in a in a minefield of of bad and terrible news. It's sort of up, it's like just kind of OK. This thing under control. Got it covered. That's right. So I was like I was like, what? I was like, this is not the like even the toilet paper people. When you talk to them, they're like, you know, this is a really hard time, but we're gonna make it work.
Like, the supply chain is really like where we got to. And these guys like, no big deal. We got.
Are they bobbing more than they need to bleed like what it was set. So they have said no. They have said no. Like. And it's kind of the scale that they're working on because they do so much for so many things over such a big industry. The sort of the scale of it is such that, like, it's already it's already so big a scale and it's already so efficient. Attest that it's like a drop in the bucket. I see.
That's the clean. I just some suddenly asking myself questions about the baseline scale which they operate. I'm like, yeah, do they.
How is that possible. How is that possible that you have. Do they have warehouses full of that blue blood. Yeah. Just in case like. Yeah well it is, it is a pretty important like. I don't know if that's the case. I can find out. Might my guess would be because it's such a crucial thing. I would imagine that they're like just anticipating any problems and the fact that it's like written into the regulations that literally medicines need this thing.
Oh, interesting. You know, like it's like you need to have this much in a warehouse because because it's so important. Salix interest. I'll be my guests, but I could look into that.
Well, that's really interesting because, I mean, it was it reminds me of the very beginning when you you were hearing all these reports about how many masks the government had in its in its reservoir, which was like, oh, I didn't realize that there was somebody who was putting masks on robot that seemed so supersmart.
You now that you mentioned and of course there's horse shoe blood in the reservoir. Yeah. So OK, so that's how that's the company's sort of perspective. But then there's the question of like how are the horseshoe crabs doing actually in the two years since we've run that story? Like what? What's the status of the horseshoe crabs? So there has been so we quoted in the story, there's the thing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it's like basically a government survey.
One came out last year. Twenty nineteen. They found that across the whole eastern seaboard of the United States, the population of horseshoe crabs is remaining stable. And then basically in the south, it's actually doing. And I'm going to quote the technical term here. Good.
So they after we after we overfished them for basically century half, they're doing they're doing all right. And to me, there's something kind of profound about that cause. Like, right at this moment where they're jumping in extra to save us, like it's nice to know that we are we are sort of saving them, too.
This piece was reported by Lots Nasser with help from Damiano, Marchetti and of course, Lulu Miller and was produced by Annie McKewon and Matt Kielty with help from Litsa Yagur. Thanks to Lacayo Windish and everyone at Lanzas Global Endotoxins Testing Summit, Mike Kendrick and Brad Floyd of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Also tomorrow, Ann Hall at Eli Lilly and of course, KC from Treasury's John Dubcek and the rest of the team. Charles River. I'm Jad Abumrad.
I'm Robert Krulwich. Thanks for listening. To play the message, press two daughters message. Hey, it's Alexis Madrigal. Hey, this is really all you from a foggy area. That was my voice on the machine. I had no idea it was still there. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and it's produced by Shaw. And we were doing pieces. Our director of Sound Design Reia Matricide of the idea is our managing director. Our staff include Simon Adler Beck of wrestler Richard Kucik.
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And this message with known to men. Who is known to imagine them.
Hello. Hello. Go ahead. Pretty good. Hang up the phone. You should still be there. Hi, beautiful. So word on the street is you have a story to read.
I do. I do have a story. I think my levels are OK.
I have a really weird horseshoe crab deep dive. So you have to pretend you have to, like, really channel me speaking like a kind of jersey dude. Like I picture that. This voice is like a Jersey kind of Tony Soprano voice. I'm trying to understand it. OK. But like, go there in new. I will.
I will be translating into that voice in my head. OK. OK.
So it's called me and Jane.
There is nothing finer than the feel of Jane suckling algae from my back. If that sounds gross, just imagine how it would feel for a moment. A fine horseshoe crab like Jane climbing up under your shell, nibbling and scraping around to remove this past week's failures and setbacks and scabs.
A glittering cascade of UN sectioning all over your shell Phillips's, she'd say when her work was complete.
My turn. Sorry, Emma. Short of breath. This is a pregnancy curse. But I'll just.
There might be some breaths you're going have to take out and even notice in Centigrade. Okay, good.
Flip these. She'd stay when her work was complete. My turn. And I'd climb back up onto her. Back to around a bit. Pop a few barnacles off. But I never really did that great of a job for two reasons. One, I am a bit lazy too. After years of being a bit lazy and allowing my genes shell to become encrusted in salt, scabs, algae, barnacles and more than a few mussels, I've come to find it all quite beautiful.
The whole stinking mess is a topographical record of our history.
When I say this to Jane, she rolls all nine of her eyes. But I mean it. That patch of black algae on her. Up the Mallick ridge that appeared the night last spring when we spawned under a new moon, which is, of course, no moon at all. That white gunk near her tail from a nap in the mud. The actual remnant of a cuddle or those barnacles on her backside. I know the very day they latched on, it was on our trip up to Maine to see the tide pools.
Jane had been scared of going scared of black bears or humans or yadda, yadda, yadda. I cut in and told her those were just myths perpetuated by fearful crabs with too much God damn time on their hands. Life is for living, I told her as I thrust her into the Gulf Stream. And boy, what a time we had. We soaked in tide pools. We lay out in the sun. Jane picking away at my back while I walked her through my idea for a starfish novel.
The barnacles must have suction onto her somewhere between the boyhood stargazing scene, spooky starfish star resonance and the Seagull attack scene. Even if I hadn't been too exhausted from my fit of inspiration to work on her barnacles that night. I doubt I would have been able to pry them off as they proved the next morning under that glaring Maine sun. They were as hard as rock. Oh, well, without these spots, I fear I'd forget that life would become a wash.
I whisper these kinds of things to Jane when she seems a shame of her little green beard or when she's sluggish from her kelp tales pulling in the tide.
These stains and scabs are the particulars of our experience. I tell her they are memories made physical, a record forged in desiccating sea stink of our love.
I mean, it's not that I don't appreciate a smoother shell when I see one Jefferson's wife, for example. It is hard not to notice her swimming by her shell, turgid with the strain of perfection. And if you happen to be on shore when she comes up for air. Watch out. It is almost like an optical illusion. Water on water, hump of liquid emerging from itself. What I'd give to reach out with the tiny hairs in my most private of spots, my nafo basis and run them along her shell.
Oh, but still, you couldn't pay me to trade places with Jefferson while I'm off on a fish carcass bender with the guys or having a quiet morning to myself going Mollis counting. Jefferson is at home in that same damn ditch, tending to his wife all day long. He picks and buffs and scrapes and scrubs, washing away her every residue.
She won't even tolerate a bit of salt buildup. It was a simpler existence with my Jane, my old barnacled gal, more free. Lately, though, I have to admit I've been feeling restless. We're not fighting at all. We're still very much able to make each other laugh. But I feel as though big things within me are becoming uneasy. I mentioned something along the lines of this to Jane about a week ago, but she assured me it was nothing just physical.
Time to molt. But the moon proved her wrong. The brightening moon and the descent of thousands of new horseshoe crabs on the cove. It's the spon, of course. The upcoming spon must be what's triggering this uneasiness in my gut. Because while the first part is lovely, there is nothing like the feel of your petta pulps out in the ocean holding onto the edge of Jain's shell with your grippers, 10000 other crabs clacking so hard around you it sometimes induces a sea steam.
What happens afterwards is. Unsettling. Something strange comes over everybody. Jefferson is no longer high strung, Jefferson, his wife, no longer a prima donna. Frank, who's always been kind of weird and lonely, seems okay. Everybody is lifted from their selves or rather ourselves, seemed to lift from our bodies and leave us. We become one without our peculiarities, a giant 10000 clod being as we fall asleep that night, thousands of us sinking into the cool mud all at once.
A kind of communal dream takes place. And we awake united. We share food. Take turns guarding the eggs.
Drop our suspicions of one another. We are an efficient machine of a species without the drag of the individual. I think there could be a book in this, a sort of a. hard Dinnigan treatise, the promise of the Commons. Imagine a completely selfless species, what good we could do, how quickly we could rise.
But alas, curse of us creatures unable to change a thing about ourselves.
Since the dinosaurs, we can never get this elevated state to last any longer than a couple of weeks. It ends instantaneously with the hatch. Once we've watched as tiny versions of us, smaller than clams with little button tails disappear into the surf, the collective conscious be instead decay ourselves, float back down into our shells and we feel that familiar itch again of loneliness, a self confined irrevocably to its own body. That's when we become assholes again, and dickheads and self serious know it alls.
And so my hunch. I tell Jane is that this strange gurgling in my gut is some kind of quantum vertigo. Yeah, that's it. Quantum vertigo myself, longing to be set free into the ether where it can leap and spin and do whatever it is selves do up there. And dastardly old me. This collection of hard shell and claws desperate to keep it inside. But no. Jane was right. It was just time to molt, huh?
She said after she heard the telltale rumble from underneath my Prisma poor old crab, thinking he's the next political theorist stirring with ideas when really it was just a case of skeletal indigestion. I whipped her with my tail. Shut up. She was about to respond, but a clattering burp came out instead. Ha! I said mutual mutual moulting j inside. Splendid. As we readied ourselves for the process, there's not much you can do but stand there and take it.
I realized something. What timing? I said to Jane, we'll have fresh bodies just in time for the spon pristine shells. I thought you liked my crustaceans, said Jane, staring out at the sea. I do. I gulped, my darling. Of course I do. It was right around then that she started to split her head, started craning forward, and I watched, nauseated and thrilled as a bigger, wetter version of her began sliding out.
It took hours, this arduous process of slipping out of yourself, but when she finally emerged, she was a sight to behold. Like Jane, but gleaming and massive. I better go, she said. I know, I whispered. The soft and jelly like knew Jane would need to find a secluded place to hide. As her shell hardened shell. I find you in our spot. Sure, she said, and began to slowly, carefully step away.
I lay down next to her old body in the sand. It was almost like laying with her any old day, that trusty silence of her listening. But with her shell completely empty, now, that familiar pattern of barnacles took on a frightening wait. Something about them made me feel very worried. But I couldn't tell you what. Eventually, I, too, found myself splitting. It wasn't the easiest of Moltz. I'll spare you the gory details, but let's just say the old me didn't want to let the new me through.
And it made its reluctance known with a deep gash down my back. But at last, I emerged bloodied and gelatinous. I limped to some bushes nearby. There I waited as my back began to harden. Through the bramble's, I had a good view of our old shells lying side by side in the sand, two little humps in front of the sea. I gazed at us for hours as the moon slid across the sky. There was me, the old me, a shiny little dome reflecting the moon's journey in miniature.
And there was Jane, the old Jane, a body so carpeted in weeds and stone that she reflected only us. I awaken to legs, human ones swishing by my bramble's the rubber pads on its feet make horrible squeaking noises.
I get low, the legs halt for a moment and then run over to the old Jane and the old me, the creature, a little one for a human yank's old me by the tail and brings me up to his head. I watch as it studies my private underside, then turns me over and places me back down. Thank God right where I had been in the sand. It runs at strange hand along my smooth shell. It turns to examine old Jane.
Her sweet fuzz. Her barnacles are life. Her shell cracks under the rubber pad of its foot, cracks into a thousand pieces. Little bastard dares to pick old me up again. And all I can do is watch from my bramble's as it runs away with me. As it runs away with my past self, dragging it ruthlessly down the shore. The spon has come and gone. I looked everywhere for Jane. Waiting by our spot, calling her name into the clacking shells.
Nothing. Now, I spend most evenings underwater with Frank. Weird Frank awaiting her return. The fish won't stop nibbling at my molting wound. I can feel flatworms burrowing into my back. Ask Frank to help me clean it, but he spits mussels and tells me, I've got to be kidding. My shell is growing itchy with grit. I don't know if it's sand or barnacles or what. This afternoon, I simply stood before the undertow and called her name into its haunting screams.
Jane. Anne Frank tells me to shut up about my starfish novel. Everyone does a coming of age starfish novel, he says. I mean, write the damn thing if you want.
Just please stop talking about it. As I sit with him algae sprouting on my lip, I rethink the value of a self. Screw the promise of the collective. I think sometimes one's self can be a pretty good thing. The self like a gene, for instance.
I keep getting hit with shards of grit that instead of bouncing off my shell now get cut in my kelp tangles. I feel sluggish, unwieldy, in constant pain. I think on past selves that smooth old me. What is a self anyway. What endures. With the soul. A thing of question. And my body now long gone. Is it even continuous?
I have the distinct sense, though, Jane would tell me this is magical thinking, that the old me is off somewhere on the mainland near that little human creature. I can picture that clean old shell of mine drying out near some flower pots, being occasionally sniffed at by an idiotic canine with a sloppy tongue. Yes, I'm sure of it, though. Jane would scrunch up all nine of her eyes and say, of course you're sure of it. You're making it up.
The old me is preserved in pristine form on the mainland, while the smashed shards of my sweet old Jane encrusted in the very stuff of our love disintegrate into the sea. Perhaps it's little bits of her that are sticking to me now. Here's why horseshoe crabs. That's great. That's really nice. Yeah.
Really nice to listen to a line on the floor here.
Oh, good. I'm glad. That's lovely. I didn't.
I had no idea you had such an affection for horseshoe crabs before all this began.
Where the story began. You know, the holding hand, the holding hand seen makes a lot a lot of sense. I mean, to me, it's in the moment was.