Jul 8, 2022

Baby Blue Blood Drive

This is an episode that first aired in 2018 and then again in the thick of the pandemic in 2020. Why? Because though Horseshoe crabs are not much to look at, beneath their unassuming catcher’s-mitt shell, they harbor a half-billion-year-old secret: a superpower that helped them outlive the dinosaurs, survive all the Earth’s mass extinctions, and was essential in the development of the COVID vaccines.  And what is that secret superpower? Their blood. Their baby blue blood.  And it’s so miraculous that for decades, it hasn’t just been saving their butts, it’s been saving ours too.

But that all might be about to change.  

Follow us as we follow these ancient critters - from a raunchy beach orgy to a marine blood drive to the most secluded waterslide - and learn a thing or two from them about how much we depend on nature and how much it depends on us.

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Citations:

Alexis Madrigal, "The Blood Harvest" in The Atlantic, and Sarah Zhang's recent follow up in The Atlantic, "The Last Days of the Blue Blood Harvest" 

Deborah Cramer, The Narrow Edge

Deborah Cramer, "Inside the Biomedical Revolution to Save Horseshoe Crabs" in Audubon Magazine 

Richard Fortey, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms

Ian Frazier, "Blue Bloods"  in The New Yorker 

Lulu Miller's short story, "Me and Jane"  in Catapult Magazine

Jerry Gault, "The Most Noble Fishing There Is"  in Charles River's Eureka Magazine

or check out Glenn Gauvry's horseshoe crab research database

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

LULU MILLER: Hello, I'm Lulu. This is Radiolab. If I could give a Time Person of the Year to somebody, it would be the COVID-19 vaccine. And I know the vaccine isn't a person, but when I'm deciding the person of the year, it can be a vaccine, and I would award it and I would put it on the cover. Of all the mess in the world, I think it is pretty clear that the vaccine has done unthinkable good. And by now, you probably know a little bit about the story of how it was developed, but what you might not know is the role that an ordinary crustacean—the American horseshoe crab—played in its development, and also in modern medicine as a whole. So today we are going to bring you a story that we first aired four years ago and then updated in the summer of 2020. It's about the unexpected influence horseshoe crabs have on science and society as well as what their future looks like.

LULU: It is also the first story that Latif and I ever reported together. And it's peachy, we head to the beach. So we hope you enjoy. Here it is.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

LATIF NASSER: Pickering Beach?

MAN: Yeah. Go down 13, you're gonna see this—you're gonna see the store on the right hand. You're gonna see a liquor store on the right-hand side. You're gonna make a left. That's Barrett's—actually, that's Barrett's Beach.

JAD: And this ...

LATIF: Oh, it's called Bowers Beach?

JAD: Is reporter Latif Nasser.

LATIF: Okay, okay, okay.

MAN: You wanna go to the—you don't wanna go further than ...

LATIF: Okay, so three years ago ...

MAN: That's the only pier down here.

LATIF: Three or four years ago, I'm taking the bus down to Delaware, and I stayed in this crappy hotel and then woke up, like, super early, like 5:00 a.m., still dark out, to hop in this cab.

MAN: You're gonna see the horse and carriage.

LATIF: Oh, I'm—you have got me really excited, let me tell you.

MAN: Now, that's the place to go.

LATIF: I had just started working at Radiolab. This was, like, my first—first time I'd been sent out to, like, to just go out and get tape.

MAN: You talk to anybody and they'll tell you. Anybody lives on that beach'll be glad to talk to you.

LATIF: Awesome. Awesome.

LATIF: And the whole reason why I was headed down to this beach was to record myself ...

LATIF: Okay.

LATIF: ... communing with a horseshoe crab.

ROBERT: Have you ever held one, Alexis? Have you ever ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: I've never held one in my hands. I would love to hold one in my hands.

ROBERT: Oh, yeah.

JAD: Robert, you sound very far away.

ROBERT: I know. It's ...

JAD: Turn the microphone around.

ROBERT: Is it my phone again?

JAD: Okay, just to explain, we sent Latif down to that beach ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, From Here To Eternity: I never knew it could be like this.]

JAD: ... because a few weeks earlier.

JAD: All right. Everybody say something.

ROBERT: Hello, hello, hello.

JAD: Robert and I had sort of fallen into this rabbit hole.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Hello.

JAD: We'd spoken with a guy named Alexis Madrigal.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Yep.

JAD: Who is a staff writer at the Atlantic.

JAD: How did you get onto horseshoe crabs? Where did that start for you?

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Ah, it was late at night, and I was reading through this site where all these crazy press releases are published called EurekaAlert.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, Limulus Polyphemus."

JAD: [laughs]

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And I thought, "This is gonna be my big story this year."

ROBERT: [laughs]

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And then I went and I did that thing that we do now, you know, "Horseshoe crab" and then Google images.

JAD: And there on the screen, according to Alexis, he saw these pictures of a bunch of horseshoe crabs kinda propped up on these metal racks, and they were all kinda tied in place, and they were all in a row. And they all had these thin little plastic tubes coming out of their shells. All of them.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And underneath them are what look like kind of a two-liter bottle, and there's blue blood in it.

ROBERT: Blue?

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Like, baby blue blood. And what was just so fascinating is this 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.

JAD: 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 it might all be about to change.

LATIF: Oh, wow! Oh, what are you doing over there? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

WOMAN: ... themselves in the puddle.

LATIF: That's the love puddle.

WOMAN: Yeah.

ROBERT: One thing that it does that is really cool is it, like, has a prom, a sex prom every spring.

JAD: Oh, you know what we should do? We should all go together.

ROBERT: Oh!

JAD: Isn't it in, like, a few months?

ROBERT: It's the first—it's in June, and it's on the first ...

JAD: We should go!

ROBERT: ... full moon of June.

JAD: Alexis, you wanna go?

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: I do wanna go.

JAD: [laughs] Let's go!

LATIF: Which is where I come in.

LATIF: Test, test, test, test, test.

JAD: Right, because it ended up being that Robert and Alexis and I actually couldn't go.

LATIF: And then it was like, "Oh, okay. Then send the, send the new guy," you know?

JAD: [laughs] 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 wanna go see these crabs? Like, see the sex prom?"

LATIF: [laughs] Yeah.

LATIF: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Business in front, stumpy in the back.

LATIF: 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 little bit rainy. But when you walked down the beach, it was just littered in probably thousands of horseshoe crabs.

LATIF: This is what a horseshoe crab sounds like. Yeah, there's—there's kinda no way to hear it. [laughs]

JAD: Wait, just so we get a visual, like, what does a horseshoe crab look like?

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: It's kinda like a semicircle, and then there's kinda like this front shield-y part. And then there's the tail, and a ...

ROBERT: I would call it a scuttling catcher's mitt.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Yeah. Yeah, it does look ...

JAD: Not bad, not bad.

LATIF: So there were these hoards of scuttling catcher's 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 then walking around them were ...

WOMAN: Does anyone want any gloves? It's cold. It's bloody freezing.

LATIF: ... a bunch of people.

WOMAN: Somebody stepping on a horseshoe crab, or is that one dead?

LATIF: Many of them were from a big pharmaceutical company, which will make sense in a second. But ...

GLEN GOVERY: Hi, I'm Glen.

LATIF: ... my guide for this morning on the beach was a guy named Glen.

LATIF: Oh, Glen! Nice to meet you!

LATIF: Glen Govery. Thin guy, short hair, wearing socks and sandals.

GLEN GOVERY: And I am the founder and director of the Ecological Research and Development Group.

LATIF: And also is it true? I saw—I think I saw on your resume that you were in the air force?

GLEN GOVERY: I was. Actually, I was an air traffic controller. And the first time I saw horseshoe crabs was in 1969 when I was stationed at Dover Air Force Base.

LATIF: Which is right nearby.

GLEN GOVERY: Being a young guy, coming down to the beach, looking for something that might be going on, and I saw horseshoe crab.

LATIF: Oh, wow!

GLEN GOVERY: It wasn't 'til many years later that I kinda looped around into this thing, but that was the first time I saw them.

LATIF: Sort of saw some horseshoe crabs, and kind of weirdly fell in love with them, and became really their, like, champion.

GLEN GOVERY: No, they're not all that attractive unless you've been around them awhile. I find them quite beautiful.

LATIF: You now ...

LATIF: Glen 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 the sex prom.

GLEN GOVERY: You look at them, the larger ones are females, so there's a male.

LATIF: At one point, he pointed out two crabs that were stuck together.

GLEN GOVERY: So that guy that's attached to that female ...

LATIF: Yeah.

GLEN GOVERY: ... that's his gal now.

LATIF: They were, like, locked to one another. Stuck upside down.

GLEN GOVERY: Which makes it harder for them to right themselves. Like, right now the surf is rough enough where if they were separate, there's a good chance it would flip them over.

LATIF: Yeah, yeah.

GLEN GOVERY: And they'd be okay.

LATIF: Huh.

GLEN GOVERY: But because he's hanging in there ...

LATIF: Oh, wow!

GLEN GOVERY: ... the likelihood of that happening becomes more remote.

LATIF: Oh, man. This is ...

GLEN GOVERY: But he'll die with her.

LATIF: This is like a—this is like a blockbuster romance here.

GLEN GOVERY: [laughs]

LATIF: This is, like ...

GLEN GOVERY: 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.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, From Here To Eternity: I never knew it could be like this.]

GLEN GOVERY: Where the waves are crashing over, and that was symbolic of the romance. And they were both in bathing suits, you know, embracing one another.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, From Here To Eternity: Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, From Here To Eternity: Nobody?]

GLEN GOVERY: So we've kinda got an animal world version of that going on on the beach right now.

LATIF: Yeah, I think so.

LATIF: And Glen's romantic eye just painted this sex orgy as a beautiful, flowering, like, mating season. Like, spring in nature, kind of a beautiful thing.

GLEN GOVERY: Oh my gosh. Look at that.

LATIF: But I realized really quickly was, like ...

LATIF: What is in—are those, like, maggots? What is it? Oh, that's gross!

LATIF: The reality of it was kind of horrifying. [laughs]

LATIF: Is that a threesome? What is going on?

LATIF: There'd be, like, piles of crabs trying to have sex with each other.

WOMAN: Not sure how that works.

LATIF: Yes, exactly.

LATIF: Big trains of them all hooked together. And they would be, like, going in the wrong direction all the time, like ...

LATIF: What is going on here?

LATIF: You would see, like, one crab in the middle, like, a female, like, a bigger one.

WOMAN: Holding on. So he's got his claws gripping ...

LATIF: Right.

LATIF: And then three or four males, like, all trying to mate with this one crab at the same time.

LATIF: Damn!

LATIF: And then, when you look even closer ...

LATIF: Is this guy alive?

LATIF: ... it turned out the female crab ...

WOMAN: No, it's dead.

LATIF: ... was dead.

LATIF: Oh, man, that is so gross.

LATIF: Like, this weird, like, necrophiliac foursome of crabs. It was—it was kinda raunchy, actually.

LATIF: Oh, my glasses are getting all ...

WOMAN: Yeah.

LATIF: But while I 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 ...

WOMAN: It looks like there's pieces missing.

LATIF: Oh, a lot of holes!

WOMAN: Yeah. But he's alive.

LATIF: A lot of these horseshoe crabs are really banged up.

WOMAN: See the hole? That's where it got ...

LATIF: Oh, yeah. It goes right through.

LATIF: Like, chunks of their shells are missing, their eyes are missing.

LATIF: Yeah, you wouldn't think if someone had a hole in their head that size, that

they'd just be walking around no big deal.

WOMAN: Right, exactly.

LATIF: Yeah.

WOMAN: Exactly.

LATIF: Some of them, they have holes that you could see their legs underneath.

LATIF: That is nuts!

LATIF: 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, 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 and you're like, "How? What's its secret?" And it turns out that part of the answer to that has to do with that ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Baby blue blood.

JAD: This is Alexis Madrigal again.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: 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 hemocyanin. But what's really interesting about this blood is this chemical system of slowing down bacteria.

LATIF: So say you're a horseshoe crab. And in your blood there's a little bit of bacteria. Maybe it got through in a crack in your shell. Anyway, in your blood are these cells.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Called amebocytes.

LATIF: These oval cells that are sort of on patrol in the bloodstream. And when they encounter ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: A particular kind of bacteria.

LATIF: ... the amebocytes, these oval cells ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Excrete this substance called coagulagin.

LATIF: Which does exactly what it sounds like.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: The area around where the intruders are ...

LATIF: Just, like, bloop!

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Turns into this, like, jelly stuff.

LATIF: That bacteria that snuck in ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: It traps them.

LATIF: Like a grape trapped in a bowl of jello.

JAD: Wow!

ROBERT: Wow!

LATIF: And that crack in the shell, the amebocytes seal that off too.

JAD: And what does it do with the gel then? Does it poop it out or something?

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Then it can actually attack the cells once they've been slowed down.

JAD: Oh. So it blobs the invader, and then immobilizes it. And then some other defense—defenders come in.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And then they can take it out.

JAD: Take it out.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Right.

JAD: I see.

LATIF: And this superpower fighting its tiny battles in the bodies of these rather plain-looking creatures ...

LATIF: Have you touched one of these guys before?

WOMAN: No, first time.

LATIF: First time? How does it feel?

LATIF: ... is the reason why people from pharmaceutical companies were on the beach that day.

WOMAN: It's one of those things you live your whole life, and you have no idea that ...

LATIF: How would you?

LATIF: Because this thing that's been playing out for literally millions of years, one day ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Humans started to catch onto this.

LATIF: And one human in particular.

JAMES COOPER: Good morning.

LATIF: To explain ...

JAMES COOPER: We're gonna leave the horseshoe crab ...

LATIF: Just for a minute.

JAMES COOPER: ... and talk a little bit about injectable drugs.

LATIF: That's scientist and innovator James Cooper.

ROBERT: Any relation to James Fenimore Cooper of the ...

JAD: Like, The Last of the Mochicans guy Cooper?

LATIF: No, his name is James Fenimore Cooper! He was named after James Fenimore Cooper, and his son is also named James Fenimore Cooper.

ROBERT: Oh!

JAD: Wow!

ROBERT: Wow!

JAMES COOPER: But anyways ...

LATIF: 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 ...

JAMES COOPER: They didn't know about bacteria.

LATIF: Occasionally, the fluids they were injecting would become contaminated.

JAMES COOPER: As soon as they'd inject these materials, the patients get infections and develop terrible fevers.

LATIF: Or even die.

JAMES COOPER: They can be incredibly dangerous to us.

LATIF: And so to make sure these drugs were free of bacteria that caused fevers, they didn't just, you know, try it on a person and see if they died, they checked it on a rabbit. And they would have, like, racks and racks of rabbits. Like, 24 rabbits in a rack.

JAMES COOPER: They are restrained ...

LATIF: By the neck.

JAMES COOPER: ... rather loosely.

ROBERT: You mean like a pilgrim being punished in the town square?

LATIF: Exactly right. And then they'd 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 bum. So if the rabbit's temperature goes up, we know we shouldn't put this drug inside a person. But if there's no temperature spike ...

JAMES COOPER: This solution is safe to inject into man.

LATIF: Or woman or children or really anyone.

JAMES COOPER: So that's how crude it was.

LATIF: 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.

ROBERT: [laughs]

LATIF: So it was 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.

LATIF: And to rabbit hall of famer, James Fenimore Cooper.

JAMES COOPER: My joke is that I love to talk to rabbits because they're all ears, you know?

LATIF: 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 hall or wherever ...

JAMES COOPER: And kind of jokingly, maybe somewhat seriously says, "Cooper, if you want to get out of this institution with your degree, you're gonna need to find a way to test for paragens by something other than the rabbit."

LATIF: Basically, find a better way.

JAMES COOPER: That was sort of a joke, although I think he meant some of it. [laughs]

LATIF: 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."

JAMES COOPER: Oh!

LATIF: "What if we use the horseshoe crab blood to test our drugs?"

JAMES COOPER: Would it be possible then to take this test and adapt it to test drug products?

LATIF: "Then we wouldn't have to kill all of those rabbits." So they got together, made the test work, and ...

JAMES COOPER: As soon as we made that publication in '71, then the pharmaceutical industry jumped right on it.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And so this particular chemical substance ...

LATIF: This coagulagin in the horseshoe crab blood ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Actually became a major part of the way that we test things that we're gonna inject into our bodies.

JAMES COOPER: In every hospital, as you walk down the corridor, you look in a room, there's an IV bag hanging ...

LATIF: Surgical instruments on a tray ...

JAMES COOPER: Injectables for pain, infections ...

LATIF: Your dad's pacemaker ...

JAMES COOPER: Cancer chemotherapy ...

LATIF: Your grandma's new hip, your kid's epi pen, immunization shots. All of these things have been tested with ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: This material, this—this test that we're able to do using this chemical that we extract from horseshoe crabs.

LATIF: This 450-million-year-old species.

JAD: Wow!

LATIF: Yeah, 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 drain horseshoe crab blood.

JAD: Seriously? They have to keep doing this every year?

LATIF: Yeah, they go out, 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 horseshoe crab blood drive. And the whole—I mean, 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.

JAD: After the break, Latif and 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 first hand. That's coming up.

 

***

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. We're back with Latif Nasser reporting on horseshoe crabs and the scientists who love them, or at least love their very valuable blood. And maybe them too, but mostly their blood. And therein lies the rub.

LATIF: So there are basically, like, I think four or five companies that go out and find horseshoe crabs and then extract their blood. And I wanted to see, like, what does it look like? So I sent out a few emails, and then I was emailing 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, they were like, "Hey, why don't you just come down to Charleston, South Carolina, and watch what we do here." So I went.

LATIF: You're just rolling.

LULU: So I'm—I'm rollin'.

LATIF: You're rolling.

LULU: But let me double check ...

LATIF: And along with me, I brought ...

LULU: Test, test, test.

ROBERT: Lulu!

LULU: Hey, how's it going?

LATIF: Lulu Miller.

LULU: You guys shine the horseshoe crab signal on the moon, and I come a-runnin'.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: Lulu Miller is a former Radiolab staffer. Actually, she is the first Radiolab staff member, besides myself and Robert and Ellen, and she is a co-creator of NPR's Invisibilia.

ROBERT: Wait, how did you get in on this?

LULU: I weirdly have had affection for these creatures my whole life. I, like, grew up with them. They're some of my first memories.

ROBERT: What do you remember seeing?

LULU: I remember seeing what I thought was a crab. I was like, probably three or four, on the beach with my parents in Cape Cod where we've gone my whole life, and I just remember walking on the beach and seeing this, like, massive crab, you know, a third of the size of my body, basically. And I remember kind of jumping back, and my dad saying, "Oh! Pick it up. Poke at it." You know, interact. And so I kind of turned it over, and I saw all those claws and I got scared. And then he—you know, he showed me it wasn't alive, it was a molt.

ROBERT: Oh!

LULU: And he explained what a molt 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?" I don't know. I was just little and I thought I 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.

LATIF: Okay, so where are we going?

LULU: And just ever since then, there's just been a, like, mild poetic fascination.

LULU: So it says visitors report ...

LATIF: ... to building C.

LULU: ... to building C. So I think that's actually ...

ROBERT: And Lulu, did you have a feeling about this business of any sort before you went and visited?

LULU: Yeah, there's a part of me that wondered, like, "Oh, I totally love these creatures. This big, bad company just exploiting it for their blood." And, you know, I went with a little skepticism.

LATIF: Oh, ring the doorbell? Great. Thanks.

LULU: You know, an eyebrow down and scrunched.

LATIF: So the bleeding facility was just in this kind of understated, nondescript office park land.

LULU: There's, like, people in Capri pants and sandals.

LATIF: Basically from the outside, it looks like every other one-story brick building.

LULU: Woo!

LATIF: But then when you go on the inside ...

LULU: Suddenly you're hit with this, like ...

LULU: I can smell it!

LULU: ... wash of a smell of crabs.

LATIF: Oh. Hey. Wow.

BRAD PARISH: Yes, indeed.

LATIF: That smell. How would you describe that smell?

LULU: Kinda crab mist.

LATIF: Yeah.

LATIF: It's a high-ceilinged, brightly-lit room with industrial sinks along one wall, these shiny metal operating trays on wheels. And no matter where we were standing, we just sort of managed ...

LULU: Do you need us to move?

LATIF: ... to be ...

LULU: Do you mind if I ...

LATIF: ... like exactly ...

LULU: Oh, you need us out of the way.

LATIF: ... in the way ...

LULU: I don't wanna be in your way, though.

LATIF: ... of all these busy people rushing around.

LATIF: People are in lab coats, they're wearing hairnets.

LULU: Got gloves on.

LATIF: And they're pushing around these big, gray bins on wheels.

LULU: And inside each bin ...

LATIF: ... are the horseshoe crabs.

LULU: Twisting and turning a little, waving their tails.

LATIF: All heaped on top of each other, about 20 per bin.

LULU: Flexing their claws.

BRAD PARISH: So we have our crabs coming in from our supplier.

LATIF: That's Brad Parish, our guide. He explained to us that there are two parts to the blood donation.

BRAD PARISH: We start by washing the animals.

LATIF: Scrub the shell.

BRAD PARISH: Pop the barnacles off.

LULU: They spray it.

LATIF: Dunk it, buff it.

ROBERT: And the "it" of which you speak are living animals?

LATIF: Yeah. Like, one at a time these smooth shells are passed person to person, rinsed and shining.

LULU: It's like Wonkaland for crabs in here.

LATIF: [laughs] Yeah.

LULU: It's like a whole world.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Oh, we're, like, in the way here.

LULU: Yeah, we're in the way.

LATIF: Once they're washed ...

LULU: So it's a rack of one, two, three, four, five, six ...

LATIF: ... it's time for the bleeding.

LULU: 16 crabs wheeled over are gonna go in.

LATIF: Crabs are taken outta their bins, folded in half ...

LULU: ... so their tails are kind of underneath.

LATIF: ... then 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, got these sort of, like, plastic curtains all around.

LULU: Oh, can we go—can we go in?

BRAD PARISH: We cannot go in, no.

LULU: Oh, we can't go in.

BRAD PARISH: No, no. Sorry.

LULU: Okay, got it.

LATIF: And they didn't let us go in there, because as regular bacteria-carrying humans, we were far too dirty to enter this super, super clean room.

LULU: But we could peek right in.

LATIF: And when we did, we saw that right at that fold in the crab's body ...

LULU: Right at that hinge, there's like a little opening, and the needle goes in there.

LATIF: And it was from that needle that this blood ...

LULU: This, like, brilliant, yeah, kinda sci-fi sky-blue blood ...

LATIF: ... was slowly dripping into these glass bottles.

LULU: And the crabs are kinda like, their little claws are going, but they just kinda look like they're sitting there.

LATIF: And they're draining them of about a third of their blood.

ROBERT: What is your emotional sense of this scene?

LULU: Like, it was kind of this feeling some sort of, like, what we're doing here is weird and kind of vampire-y. I don't know. It was like we're sucking their blood. So it was a little—it was a little creepy. Like, when—so Latif, like, I feel like when we were in there ...

LATIF: Hmm?

LULU: There's, like, so many ...

LULU: We were in the factory ...

LULU: Dozens and dozens of boxes filled each with, like, 10 huge crabs.

LULU: And we are in the—yeah, in that processing zone. And before we went and saw the blood, this, like, may sound cheesy but it was actually profound and I keep thinking about it, but there was this moment ...

LULU: Okay, so here we—okay, what are we looking at? Can I touch her?

BRAD PARISH: Yeah.

LULU: ... when one of the guys in the factory ...

WORKER: Oh, sure you can.

LULU: ... had pulled out from these bins this big female horseshoe crab.

LATIF: Okay.

WORKER: Oh, yeah. You wanna knock?

LULU: Yeah, I do.

LULU: And he's just sort of holding her by the shell.

LULU: Hi there. Hi.

LATIF: Oh, whoa! That's—the tail is really coming right at me here.

LULU: Yeah, so her little—her claws are goin' up, and her tail's kind of waving around. There's a lot of, yeah, claw activity.

WORKER: Exactly. And so I'll take these claws ...

LULU: 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.

WORKER: And so they're sort of pinching my hands here.

LULU: Yeah, does that hurt?

WORKER: But it doesn't hurt. There's not much power to them. They're just using that to sort of grab the food ...

LULU: Can I try?

WORKER: ... and bring it into their mouth. Absolutely.

LULU: Can I get a little pinch?

WORKER: Yep.

LULU: And so I just kind of slowly stuck my hand out toward her claws ...

LULU: Aw!

LULU: ... and her claws, like, engulfed my hand.

WORKER: Oh, here. I'm gonna take ...

LULU: Oh, they're very—yeah, they're very—it's very claspy.

LULU: It wasn't a scrabbly kind of like, foreign touch. All the claws clasped in unison, really tight.

LULU: It's actually kind of like ... [laughs]

WORKER: It's kind of a massage, right? [laughs]

LULU: It's kind of sweet.

LATIF: It's what?

LULU: So I am being—like, this horseshoe crab is holding my hand. Wow.

LULU: To me—and of course this is just silly projecting, so I'm saying that [laughs] but, like, it felt like—I know it wasn't, but it felt like a communication. Like, "I'm in this bin, and these people are doing weird things, and I wanna be back in the sea, and I'm upside down, and I'm about to go into—like, have a sink, you know, one of those, like, showerheads spray it all up in my undersides, and then I'm gonna 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!"

LATIF: Yeah, like, I mean, part of me felt that too, but I mean, on the other hand, like, they do get to go home afterwards.

BRAD PARISH: So the same fishermen that bring the crabs to us are then going to deliver them back to the ocean and release them.

LATIF: They're set free.

BRAD PARISH: Straight back to the water.

JAD: And how many crabs do they do this to every year?

LATIF: About 500,000 horseshoe crabs every year get bled.

JAD: Do the crabs that get bled and then released, I mean, do they just swim away fine, or do they ...?

LATIF: So some of them do die after the bleeding.

JAD: Huh.

LATIF: There's a small percentage, like, I think the conservative estimate is around, like, 10 percent, but that might be a high estimate, or it might be a low estimate. I have no idea. So it's a ...

LULU: I think it's 15. 15 percent.

LATIF: Okay. So let's say, like, 15 percent. So if you're talking about 500,000 crabs being bled every year, that means about 75,000 horseshoe crabs are dying because of bleeding every year.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: You know, they actually, in that original paper that I looked at ...

JAD: Again, Alexis Madrigal.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: They were actually able to see that a lot of the crabs don't have—like, bled 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 bled animals appear more lethargic. They move, you know, more slowly, and—like, imagine if you had to go, like, harvest deer, and then bleed them of 30 percent of their blood, and then you'd, like, leave them back out in the forest. Like, there's something about that that seems so bizarre.

ROBERT: Yeah.

JAD: Yeah. It seems very medieval. Is there any hope of getting out of this whole vampire relationship we have with the horseshoe crabs?

LATIF: Well, perhaps. And, let me tell you a brief story about a bird. A smallish bird, cinnamon in color, with a long bill. It's called a red knot. Now the incredible thing about red knots is, of all the birds in the world, the red knot makes one of the longest migrations—nearly 10,000 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.

LATIF: And what happens is, thousands of these red knot birds will take off from South America, they'll fly, like, 4,000 miles north up to Brazil, and they'll stop there 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 ...

LATIF: It's kind of weirdly beautiful.

LATIF: The Delaware Bay.

WOMAN: It looks like it's very fresh.

LATIF: Yeah.

WOMAN: And not dried up.

LATIF: Yeah.

LATIF: 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 ...

GLEN GOVERY: Oh, look. I don't know if you've been noticing all the eggs.

LATIF: They need to eat millions of horseshoe crab eggs to complete their migration.

GLEN GOVERY: And here ...

LATIF: Oh!

GLEN GOVERY: ... this is an egg cluster right there.

LATIF: Oh, that's—oh, wow!

GLEN GOVERY: There's another one.

LATIF: Oh, wow. Oh, I'm gonna be way really careful where I step now.

LATIF: And this is the thing: it's weirdly these birds that might actually free the horseshoe crabs from us.

JAY BOLTON: Yeah. Yep.

LATIF: And to explain, I got in touch with this guy.

JAY BOLTON: My name is Jay Bolton.

LATIF: A biologist.

JAY BOLTON: In the Global Quality Laboratories at Eli Lilly and Company.

LATIF: So Eli Lilly and Company, it's this huge pharmaceutical company that makes, you know, cancer drugs and antidepressants.

JAY BOLTON: A lot of insulin, and things like that.

LATIF: And real quick ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Eli Lilly executive: People are at the core of our commitment to manufacturing.]

LATIF: ... here's a message from an executive.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Eli Lilly executive: And the driving force behind our innovation.]

LATIF: Radiolab is brought to you by—anyway, one of the things the company's been helping innovate is ...

JAY BOLTON: Horseshoe crab blood.

LATIF: A synthetic version of horseshoe crab blood. And, you know, Jay explained to me if you kind of like, zoom out for a second and think about what it means to use horseshoe crab blood for this, you know, vital thing in medicine ...

JAY BOLTON: The problem is there needs to be a supply of horseshoe crabs.

LATIF: And, you know ...

[NEWS CLIP: Global warming.]

[NEWS CLIP: Global warming.]

[NEWS CLIP: Climate change is real.]

LATIF: Rising sea levels, habitat loss ...

JAY BOLTON: That could have some supply chain consequences.

LATIF: Which isn't good.

JAY BOLTON: No.

LATIF: And so it was actually all the way back in 1997 ...

JAY BOLTON: Some researchers out of the University of Singapore cloned this—the factor C protein.

LATIF: The essential factor C protein in horseshoe crab blood that goes, "Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop," around the bad bacteria.

JAY BOLTON: And now we can make the protein of interests instead of getting that directly from horseshoe crabs.

JAD: Huh. So why aren't we already using that?

JAY BOLTON: Yeah, so the problem is ...

LATIF: Well, Jay explained 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 was no real, immediate incentive to change. Which is actually how we get back to ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Birds: They're coming, they're coming!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Birds: Our good friends, the birds.]

LATIF: So it turns out people like these birds a lot. Like, 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 bird's not gonna do well.

JAY BOLTON: And so ...

LATIF: Jay figured, "Why don't I just go around to all the bird conservationists ..."

JAY BOLTON: To use some of their political power and contacts.

LATIF: And it's only now that we're starting to come upon a new dawn.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, conference: So good afternoon, everyone. And welcome here. This is a great place to be today.]

LATIF: 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.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, conference: 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. [applause]]

LATIF: Which means these horseshoe crabs can finally be freed of their servitude and bondage to mankind and get back to doing ...

LATIF: Is that a threesome? What is going on here?

WOMAN: A little—a little orgy.

LATIF: ... what they love.

LATIF: That's a big orgy.

WOMAN: [laughs]

LATIF: It's a big orgy.

LULU: 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 kind of weird sea spiders again, and that could be a really bad thing for them.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Yeah, exactly.

LULU: This is actually something that Alexis Madrigal talks about, too.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: 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.

LULU: Because, before we ever valued them for their blood ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: We basically did two things with them.

LULU: Thing one ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: We turned them into a fertilizer.

LULU: We would catch them, boil them.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: And grind them. And then just stick them in the soil as a way of promoting plant growth, or ...

LULU: Thing two ...

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: We'd catch them, cut them up, and use them to, like—as bait to catch more valuable species, like particular kinds of snails.

LATIF: Okay, 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.

JAD: Three million. Wow!

LATIF: But more recently, we've put restrictions on how many horseshoe crabs can be used for commercial fishing, for bait. It's even—like, in a lot of states, it's a crime to go to a beach and just take, you know, a bunch of horseshoe crabs. Like, in New Jersey, if you take a horseshoe crab, you could get fined $10,000.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: The thing that I've always wanted to keep in mind with this is like, if you're gonna have to be, you know, hooked up to some economic system—which most animals in our world are—you'd kind of want to be hooked up to one that's super high value and that doesn't kill you.

LULU: And so the fear is, 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.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: 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.

LATIF: Hi! I'm Latif. Nice to meet you.

JERRY GULT: Hi, nice to meet you.

LATIF: Thanks for having us here.

JERRY GULT: Yeah, more than glad to.

LULU: This is so cool.

LULU: And there was this moment where everything just kind of flipped for me. You know, like, where I realized that, as cruel and kinda grizzly as the draining of the blood seems, that actually may be the best thing for these creatures. Like, our selfishness may be protecting them.

JERRY GULT: Well, you wanna see some more horseshoe crabs?

LULU: Yes!

LATIF: Yes!

LULU: Yes, always.

LULU: So this was our very last stop on our trip down to South Carolina, and we met this fisherman named Jerry Gult who is employed to collect horseshoe crabs for the company.

LULU: What a peaceful little spot!

LULU: So we were in this forest ...

LATIF: Yeah, I know. This feels like the most secluded place in the world.

LULU: ... with Jerry, walking around this little pond.

LATIF: I wore the exactly wrong shoes.

LULU: I know, me too, I just wore the wrong thing.

LULU: 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 ...

LATIF: Oh, what do you got there?

LULU: Jerry, like, scooped some water out of the pond ...

LATIF: That's just a bottle of water.

JERRY GULT: No, it's more than ...

LULU: But then he held the bottle up to our faces.

JERRY GULT: See the babies?

LULU: Oh, they're tiny!

LATIF: Oh, all of those?

JERRY GULT: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: Every—wow, there's so many of them. How many ...

JERRY GULT: Oh, yeah. They do 100,000 eggs a season.

LATIF: Wow!

LULU: Yeah. They're like the size of a really round grain of rice. [laughs] Kind of like pearled couscous.

LATIF: Pearled couscous is great.

JERRY GULT: [laughs]

LULU: Are they—like, were they laying the eggs here? Or did you get the eggs from the ...

JERRY GULT: No, no. They lay their eggs along the shore.

LATIF: Oh, on this bit of shore here?

JERRY GULT: Uh-huh.

LATIF: Oh, literally right here? Oh, wow!

LULU: Oh, that's so cool.

LATIF: Well, so—and I feel like we heard a tiny bit about, but what's the story of how you went from, or your family went from being kinda seafood, you know, fisherman to doing this kinda crazy different thing?

JERRY GULT: Well, we're just a bunch of fishermen with ADD.

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: But Jerry told us the gist of it is, back when his dad was doing seafood fishing ...

JERRY GULT: And I was just a tyke then. That was in the '70s.

LATIF: His dad was catching a lot of horseshoe crab, selling them off for bait. And then one day, this guy just showed up at his house, suit and tie.

JERRY GULT: Told my dad that if he would quit selling them for bait, you know, he'd make a deal for them. He would buy them.

LATIF: Buy them for more money. So Jerry's dad said sure.

JERRY GULT: We've been doing it ever since.

LATIF: And—and ...

JERRY GULT: But I've 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 wanna say it's 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 safe for us, and can't say that about soft shell crabs, or ...

LULU: Right.

JERRY GULT: ... or grouper, you know?

LULU: Yeah. You touch every one and then you touch it again and return it.

JERRY GULT: Well, I touch you.

LULU: Yeah.

JERRY GULT: Indirectly. Indirectly I'm touchin' all of us here, because we're all part of it, so it's a pretty neat thing.

LATIF: If you had to describe your feelings for the crabs, for the horseshoe crabs, how do you feel about them?

JERRY GULT: Well, I have a lot of respect for them, and I almost feel like it's divine design, the horseshoe crab is. You know, I've seen them, fishin' for them. You know, they're a nuisance then. And now I see them on this side where they're important to human society. And it just draws me back to the idea that it was divine design. They've been around for 400 million years. It took 'em this—took us this long to figure it out, I guess.

JAD: Out of curiosity, where did that—where did that leave the two of you?

LATIF: Well—well for me, I mean, Jerry the fisherman, he's totally right. Like, we just figured this out. These crabs have been Clark Kent-ing us this whole time.

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: They have this hard-won superpower that they've probably had since, you know, before, like, three branches on our evolutionary tree, and in evolutionary terms, like, they're the winners. We're the—we're chumps.

LULU: Mmm.

LATIF: We're baby chumps.

LULU: Yeah. And they're just, 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, or just another thing they're probably gonna 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 came to represent the best way to treat the crabs.

JERRY GULT: That's right. Exactly. Treat 'em like eggs.

LULU: There are these rules in place to make sure that the horseshoe crabs are picked up by hand, and you can't pick them up by the tail.

JERRY GULT: Because you can injure them, the muscle in the tail. We keep them covered when we transport them.

LULU: They're also on a time clock.

JERRY GULT: We've gotta get them back as quick as possible.

LULU: They have to be back to the ocean within 24 hours. When they get to the lab ...

JERRY GULT: We give the manicure, pedicure.

LULU: ... each one gets scrubbed clean by hand.

JERRY GULT: And then they borrow some blood from it, and I bring it back and let it go.

LULU: And he showed us how he returns them to the water, and he—like, he built this fricking waterslide.

JERRY GULT: A slide to go down.

LULU: To do it more gently.

JERRY GULT: You know, now we pick them up, set them into the slide, and the water takes them down to the river. Before, we used to pick them up and toss them.

LULU: Yeah.

JERRY GULT: And we've gotten away from tossing them. It's amazing. I got a slide on my dock 200-foot-long waterslide where they rehydrate on their way to the river. See how fast they go on their way down?

LULU: Yeah.

JERRY GULT: Don't wanna get your finger caught on there. Do you wanna hold it?

LULU: Yeah, sure. Ready? So this is the male.

JERRY GULT: That's the male.

LULU: Okay.

JERRY GULT: And the female's always bigger.

LULU: And we just interrupted his embrace.

LATIF: His game.

LULU: His cuddling.

LATIF: His cuddling.

LATIF: So it's been around four years since we first reported that story about horseshoe crabs, you know, and the magical super sensitive stuff that we take out of their blood, which I don't even know how we manage to do this. We didn't name the thing we take out of them, which is called LAL. Then still early on in the pandemic, I called up Dr. James Fenimore Cooper ...

JAMES COOPER: Hello.

LATIF: Who was the guy who's been, you know, working on this basically since the '60s, just to find out, you know, given everything that was going on in the world, you know, what was new?

LATIF: Tell me the story of LAL in the time of COVID. What—how is it being used? What's going on?

JAMES COOPER: Well, that's a good question. Of course, the FDA will require the LAL reagent to be used to test all of the vaccine batches that are produced. That's required for every vaccine right now.

LATIF: So you're that no matter which one gets there first or, you know, however many get there first, they're all gonna have to sort of the final stages, they're all gonna have to pass an LAL test. Is that right?

JAMES COOPER: Yes.

JAD: Huh.

LATIF: 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. Cooper says ...

JAMES COOPER: They have to test all of the ingredients of the formulation: their waters, their salts, their buffers.

JAD: Wow!

LATIF: And then not only that, it doesn't even end 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.

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: And, you know, shipped out.

JAD: But that's amazing.

LATIF: Are there other ways that LAL has been used, like, for this epidemic in particular besides the vaccine?

JAMES COOPER: Well, it will have been used to test every medicine that is being injected, and used to screen all the devices: needles and syringes, IV lines and things like that. It's used to test that.

LATIF: So imagine this. So okay, so imagine you're walking into a hospital, you have symptoms, you test positive for COVID-19. What happens after that, right? So maybe doctor takes your blood. Syringe used to do that, to run whatever blood test, the syringe used to take your blood, that's been tested with LAL before it left the factory. Let's say you get hooked up to IV fluids. Those IV fluids would also be horseshoe crab approved, as would be the IV 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—at the site of where it was manufactured, that would have also had to be tested with the—with LAL, with the blood of a horseshoe crab.

JAD: Wow.

LATIF: And it is true, I should say, that there some certain companies like Eli Lilly that are in the process of making this switch to the synthetic version, recombinant factor C, but LAL is still the standard.

JAD: Holy moly! So it's like—it's like ...

LATIF: It's everywhere.

JAD: Wow!

LATIF: Super impressive. But then there's another little bell that's ringing in my head which is like, "Oh, no! Like, means we're gonna need a lot of extra horseshoe crab blood to do this."

JAD: Right.

LATIF: Like, on the supply side, given that there's so many vaccines in development, given that—won't it just use up a ton of the—of the LAL?

JAMES COOPER: Well, a number of months ago, the three major LAL producers got together and came up with a scenario that if they made five billion doses ...

LATIF: Doses of vaccine, you mean? Yeah.

JAMES COOPER: Vaccine, yeah. How much LAL would that require? And their calculations showed that it would require a couple of days' production. And then I made a second calculation yesterday, and I used 10 times as much LAL as they calculated, and I found out it still wouldn't use one percent of their inventory.

LATIF: Whoa! That's—that's ...

JAMES COOPER: That's reassuring.

LATIF: I know. I was about to say it's like in a—in a minefield of bad and terrible news, it's sort of a—it's just like a kind of okay, this thing? Under control. Got it. Covered.

JAMES COOPER: Yes. That's right.

LATIF: 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 we got—" and these guys are like, "Nah, no big deal. We got it."

JAD: Are they bleeding more than they need to bleed? Like, what is—that seems ...

LATIF: 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 a test that it's like a drop in the bucket.

JAD: I see. Got it.

LATIF: That's the claim.

JAD: I just am suddenly asking myself questions about the baseline scale at which they operate. I'm like, what are they ...?

LATIF: Yeah. How is that possible?

JAD: How is that possible? Like, do they have warehouses full of that blue blood?

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah.

JAD: Just in case, like ...

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it is a pretty important—like, I don't know if that's the case. I can find out. 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.

JAD: Oh, interesting!

LATIF: You know, like, it's like you need to have this much in a warehouse because it's so important.

JAD: That's interesting.

LATIF: That would be my guess, but I could look into that more.

JAD: That's really interesting because, I mean, it was—it reminds me of the very beginning when you were hearing all these reports about how many masks the government had in its reservoir, which was like, "Oh!"

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: I didn't realize that there was somebody who was putting masks in a row. But that seems so super smart. Now that you mention it, of course there's horseshoe blood in the reservoir.

LATIF: Yeah. So—okay, 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's the status of the horseshoe crabs? So there has been—so we quoted in the story, there's this thing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it's like basically a government survey. One came out last year, 2019. 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 gonna quote the technical term here—"good."

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: So they—after we overfished them for basically a century and a half, they're doing—they're doing all right. And to me, there's something kind of profound about that because, 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.

JAD: Thanks to Laquia Wimbish and everyone at Lonza Global Endotoxins Testing Summit. Mike Kendrick and Brad Floyd of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Also Tamara Anne Hull at Eli Lilly, and of course Kate Contreras, John Dubczak and the rest of the team at Charles River. I'm Jab Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Bowen Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly and Emily Krieger.]

 

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