Jul 23, 2020

Baby Blue Blood Drive

Horseshoe crabs are not much to look at.  But beneath their unassuming catcher’s-mitt shell, they harbor a half-billion-year-old secret: a superpower that helped them outlive the dinosaurs and survive all the Earth’s mass extinctions.  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.

 

BONUS: If you want to know more about how miraculous horseshoe crabs are, here's a bunch of our favorite reads:

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

 

This episode was reported by Latif Nasser with help from Damiano Marchetti and Lulu Miller, and was produced by Annie McEwen and Matt Kielty with help from Liza Yeager.

Special thanks to Arlene Shaner at the NY Academy of Medicine, Tim Wisniewski at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives at Johns Hopkins University, Jennifer Walton at the library of the Marine Biological Lab of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Glenn Gauvry at the Ecological Research and Development Group.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate. 

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Speaker 1:

Wait, wait, you're li- (laughs)

 

Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Speaker 1:

All right.

 

Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Speaker 1:

All right.

 

Speaker 2:

You're listening-

 

Speaker 4:

Listening-

 

Speaker 2:

... to Radio Lab.

 

Speaker 4:

Radio Lab.

 

Speaker 2:

From-

 

Speaker 5:

WYN-

 

Speaker 2:

C.

 

Speaker 6:

C?

 

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 2:

(laughs)

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Speaker 9:

Oh, Britannia beach, or-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh-

 

Speaker 10:

No, no [crosstalk 00:00:24].

 

Speaker 9:

Pickering beach?

 

Speaker 10:

Pickering beach.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 9:

Pickering beach.

 

Speaker 10:

Go down 13-

 

Speaker 9:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

 

Speaker 10:

... you gonna see, you gonna see the store on, on the right hand. So, you'll see a liquor store on the right hand side. You gonna make a, you gonna make a left, that's Barif's... Actually, Barif's beach.

 

Speaker 9:

And this-

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, it's called Bowers beach?

 

Speaker 9:

Is reporter Latif Nasser.

 

Latif Nasser:

Okay, okay, okay.

 

Speaker 10:

You wanna go to the, you don't wanna go further-

 

Latif Nasser:

Okay, so three years ago-

 

Speaker 10:

Only pier down here.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 AM, still dark out, to hop in this cab.

 

Speaker 10:

You're gonna see the horse and carriage.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, I'm... You have got me really excited, let me tell you.

 

Speaker 10:

Now, that's the place to go.

 

Latif Nasser:

I had just started working at Radio Lab, this was, like, my first, uh, first time I'd been sent out to, like, to just go out and get tape.

 

Speaker 10:

You talk to anybody and they'll tell yeah, anybody lives on that beach'll be glad to talk to you.

 

Latif Nasser:

Awesome. Awesome.

 

Latif Nasser:

And the whole reason why I-I-I was headed down to this beach was to record myself-

 

Latif Nasser:

Okay.

 

Latif Nasser:

... communing with a horseshoe crab.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Have you ever held one, Alexis, have you ever, um-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh, yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh, Robert, you sound very far away, why-

 

Robert Krulwich:

I know. It's a-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Turn the microphone around.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Is it my phone again?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, just to explain, uh, we sent Latif down to that beach-

 

Soundbite:

I never knew it could be like this.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... because a few weeks earlier. All right, everybody say something.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hello, hello, hello.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Hello.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh, we'd spoken with Alexis Madrigal.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Yep.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Who is a staff writer at the Atlantic.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Ah, um, 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, Limulus Polyphemus,"

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Alexis Madrigal:

... and I thought, "This is gonna be my big story this year."

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Alexis Madrigal:

And then I went, um, and I did that thing that we do now, you know, horseshoe crab and then Google images.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And, uh, 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 outta 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 Krulwich:

Blue?

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Like baby blue blood. And, and what was just so fascinating is the strange blood, it turns out to be the least interesting part of the story. Like, at, at some level, like, it's just the visual that draws you in.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Because inside their strange blood, the horseshoe crabs have a kind of super power. 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 Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 14:

Just [inaudible 00:03:49] themselves in the puddle.

 

Latif Nasser:

That's the love puddle.

 

Speaker 14:

Yeah.

 

Robert Krulwich:

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

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

It's the first, it's the... It's, it's in June, and it's on the first-

 

Jad Abumrad:

We should go.

 

Robert Krulwich:

... full moon of June.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Alexis, you wanna go?

 

Alexis Madrigal:

I do wanna go.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs) Let's go.

 

Latif Nasser:

Which is where I come in.

 

Latif Nasser:

Test, test, test, test, test.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jad Abumrad:

(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're like, "Hey, do you wanna go see these crabs? Like, see the sex prom?"

 

Latif Nasser:

(laughs). Uh, yeah.

 

Latif Nasser:

Right. Yeah. Yeah. Business in front-

 

Speaker 15:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

... stumpy in the back.

 

Latif Nasser:

So, anyway, so I go and then when I got there, it was still pretty early, like, maybe 6:00, 7:00 in the morning. It was little bit rainy, but when you walked down the beach, it was just littered in, in probably thousands of horseshoe crab.

 

Latif Nasser:

This is what a horseshoe crab sounds like. Yeah, there's, there's kinda no way to hear it (laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

It's kinda like a semicircle, and then there's kinda, like, this front shieldy part, and then there's the tail, and a, um-

 

Robert Krulwich:

I would call it a scuttling catcher's mitt.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah. Yeah, it does look-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Not bad, not bad.

 

Latif Nasser:

So there were these hoards of scuttling catcher's mitts, uh, you know, scuttling around, and, uh, they, 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, um, lobster-like legs. And, and, and then walking around them were-

 

Speaker 16:

Does anyone want any gloves? It's cold. It's bloody freezin'.

 

Latif Nasser:

... a bunch of people.

 

Speaker 16:

Somebody stepping on a horseshoe crab or is that one dead? Oh.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

Hi, I'm Glen.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, Glen, nice to meet you.

 

Glen:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

Um, and I am the founder and director of the ecological research and development group.

 

Latif Nasser:

And al.. Is, is it true, I saw, I think I saw on your resume that you were in the air force?

 

Glen:

I was, uh, actually I was an air traffic controller. And, uh, the first time I saw horseshoe crabs was in 1969 when I was stationed at Dover airport's base.

 

Latif Nasser:

Which is right nearby.

 

Glen:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, wow.

 

Glen:

Um, 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 Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

So, you, you now, you-

 

Latif Nasser:

Glen now leads these, you know, educational tours of horseshoe crabs. E-Especially at, at this time of the year. And he walked me up and down the beach, uh, painstakingly, explaining to me the rules of the, you know, of the sex prom.

 

Glen:

You look at 'em, the larger ones are females, so there's a male.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

So that guy that's attached to that female-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Glen:

... that's his gal now.

 

Latif Nasser:

They were, like, locked to one another, stuck upside down.

 

Glen:

Which makes it harder for them to right themselves. Like, right now the surf is rough enough where-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Glen:

... if they were separate-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Glen:

... there's a good chance it would flip them over-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, yeah.

 

Glen:

... and they'd be okay.

 

Latif Nasser:

Wow.

 

Glen:

But because he's hangin' in there-

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, wow.

 

Glen:

... the likelihood of that happening becomes more remote.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, m... This is-

 

Glen:

But he'll die with her.

 

Latif Nasser:

This is like a, this is like a blockbuster romance here.

 

Glen:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

This is, like-

 

Glen:

Yeah. I mean, I, you know, you had to go back to remember Burt Lancaster on the beach, you know, I forget what movie that was-

 

Soundbite:

I never knew it could be like this.

 

Glen:

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

 

Soundbite:

Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.

 

Soundbite:

Nobody?

 

Glen:

So we, we've kinda got a, a, an animal world version of that going on on the beach right now.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah. I, I think so.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

Oh my gosh, look at that.

 

Latif Nasser:

But, um, but I realized really quickly with, like-

 

Latif Nasser:

What is in... Are those, like, maggots? What is it? Oh, that's gross.

 

Latif Nasser:

The reality of it was kind of horrifying.

 

Latif Nasser:

Is that a threesome? What is going on?

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 16:

Wonder how that works.

 

Latif Nasser:

How... Yes, exactly.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

What is going on here?

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 16:

Holding on so he's got his claws gripping-

 

Latif Nasser:

Right?

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Damn.

 

Latif Nasser:

And then, when you look even closer-

 

Latif Nasser:

Is this guy alive?

 

Latif Nasser:

... it turned out the female crab-

 

Speaker 16:

... it's dead.

 

Latif Nasser:

... was dead.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, man, that is so gross.

 

Latif Nasser:

Like, this weird, like, necrophiliac foursome of crabs. Uh, it was, it was p... it was kinda raunchy, actually.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, my glasses are getting all, uh-

 

Speaker 16:

Yeah.

 

Latif Nasser:

... all-

 

Speaker 16:

Yeah. I want to my-

 

Latif Nasser:

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-

 

Speaker 16:

It looks like there's pieces missing.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, a lotta holes.

 

Speaker 16:

Yeah. But he's alive.

 

Latif Nasser:

A lot of these horseshoe crabs are really banged up.

 

Speaker 16:

See the hole? That's where it got-

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, yeah. It goes right through.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 16:

Right.

 

Latif Nasser:

... they'd just be walking around-

 

Speaker 16:

Right.

 

Latif Nasser:

... no big deal.

 

Speaker 16:

Exactly.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 16:

Exactly.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 16:

Uh huh.

 

Latif Nasser:

That is nuts.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 kinda 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 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 Abumrad:

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 Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

A particular kind of bacteria-

 

Latif Nasser:

The amebocytes, these oval cells-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Excrete this substance called coagulajin-

 

Latif Nasser:

Which does exactly what it sounds like.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

The area around where the intruders are just, like, bloop... Turns into this, like jelly stuff.

 

Latif Nasser:

That bacteria that snuck in-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

It traps them.

 

Latif Nasser:

Like a grape trapped in a bowl of jello.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Wow.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Then it, then it can actually attack the cells once they've been slowed down.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh. S-So it, it, it blobs the invader-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... and then immobilizes it and then some other, uh, defense... defenders come in.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

And then they can take it out.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Take it out.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I see.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Have you touched one of these guys before?

 

Speaker 16:

No, first time.

 

Latif Nasser:

First time? How does it feel?

 

Latif Nasser:

Is the reason why people from pharmaceutical companies were on the beach that day.

 

Speaker 16:

It's one of those things, you live your whole life-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 16:

... and you have no idea that-

 

Latif Nasser:

How would you? [crosstalk 00:12:15]

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Humans started to catch onto this.

 

Latif Nasser:

And one human in particular.

 

James Cooper:

Good morning.

 

Latif Nasser:

To explain-

 

James Cooper:

We're gonna leave the horseshoe crab-

 

Latif Nasser:

Just for a minute.

 

James Cooper:

... and talk a little bit about injectable drugs.

 

Latif Nasser:

That's scientist and innovator James Cooper.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Any relation to James Fenimore Cooper of the-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Like, The Last of the Mochicans guy Cooper?

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow.

 

James Cooper:

Um, but anyways-

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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 Nasser:

Or even die.

 

James Cooper:

They can be incredibly, uh, dangerous to us.

 

Latif Nasser:

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, like racks and racks of rabbits, like, 24 rabbits in a rack.

 

James Cooper:

They are restrained-

 

Latif Nasser:

By the neck.

 

James Cooper:

... rather loosely.

 

Robert Krulwich:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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 bums. 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 Nasser:

Or woman, or children, or really anyone.

 

James Cooper:

So, that's how crude it was.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

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.

 

Soundbite:

Oh no.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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. Uh, y-you know.

 

Speaker 19:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

Anyway, back in the late '60s, Cooper was a grad student at John Hopkin's University. And one day, one of his professors came up to him in the, in the hall, or wherever-

 

James Cooper:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Basically, find a better way.

 

James Cooper:

That was sort of a joke, although I think he meant some of it (laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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, uh, made that publication in '71, then the pharmaceutical industry jumped right on it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And so, this particular chemical substance-

 

Latif Nasser:

This coagulajinin 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, uh, the corridor, you look in a room, there's an IV bag hanging-

 

Latif Nasser:

Surgical instruments on a tray-

 

James Cooper:

Injectables for pain, infections-

 

Latif Nasser:

Your dad's pace maker-

 

James Cooper:

Cancer chemotherapy-

 

Latif Nasser:

Your grandma's new hip.

 

baby:

Oh!

 

Latif Nasser:

Your kid's epi pen.

 

baby:

(crying).

 

Latif Nasser:

Immunization shots.

 

Speaker 21:

Yes. Aw.

 

baby:

(crying).

 

Latif Nasser:

All of these things have been tested with-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

This material, this, this, uh, task that we're able to do using this chemical that we extract from horseshoe crabs.

 

Latif Nasser:

This 450 million year old species.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, but, in order t-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.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Seriously. They have to keep doing this every year?

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, they go out, they get the crabs every year, they drain their blood, and then they go put 'em back out into the ocean. It's like a, like a, like a, like a horseshoe crab blood drive. And th-the whole, I mean, the, it's there are a bunch of companies that does this, and the whole industry is worth, you know, like, 10s 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 Abumrad:

After the break, uh, 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 firsthand. That's comin' up.

 

Katie:

This is Katie from Big Sky, Montana. Radio Lab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Ilya Merritz:

Hello, it's Ilya Marritz, cohost of Trump Inc. Donald Trump is the only recent president to not release his tax returns, the only president you can pay directly by booking a room at his hotel. He shreds rules, sometimes literally.

 

Speaker 25:

He didn't hear what records was. He tore up memos or things, and just, the man is rash. So it took somebody from the White House staff to tell him like, "Look, you can't do that."

 

Ilya Merritz:

Trump Inc., an open investigation into the business of Trump, from Pro Publica, and WNYC. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radio Lab. We're back with Latif Nasser reporting on horseshoe crabs, and the scientists who love them, or at least love their, uh, very valuable blood. And maybe them too, but mostly their blood. And there in lies the [inaudible 00:18:59].

 

Latif Nasser:

So, there are basically, like, four or five companies that go out, 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, uh, 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 Nasser:

You're just rolling.

 

Lulu Miller:

So I'm, I'm rollin'.

 

Latif Nasser:

You're rolling.

 

Lulu Miller:

But let me double check-

 

Latif Nasser:

And along with me, I brought-

 

Lulu Miller:

Test, test, test.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Lulu.

 

Lulu Miller:

Hey, how's it goin'?

 

Latif Nasser:

Lulu Miller.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Lulu Miller is a former radio lab staffer. Actually, she is the first Radio Lab staff member, uh, besides myself and Robert, and Ellen, and, uh, she is a co-creator of NPR's Invisibilia.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wait, how did you get in on this?

 

Lulu Miller:

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 Krulwich:

What do you remember seeing?

 

Lulu Miller:

I-I remember seeing what I thought was a crab. I was, like, probably three or four out on the beach with my parents in Cape Cod where we've gone my whole life and, 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 kinda jumping back, and my dad saying, "Oh! Pick it up. Poke at it," you know, interact, and so I kinda 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 Krulwich:

Oh.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 behi..." I don't know, I was just little and I thought I was cool and we, 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 Nasser:

So where are we goin'?

 

Lulu Miller:

I don't-

 

Lulu Miller:

I was just, ever since then, there's just been a, like, mild poetic fascination.

 

Lulu Miller:

So it says visitors report-

 

Latif Nasser:

To building C.

 

Lulu Miller:

... to building C. So I think that's actually-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Now Lulu, did you have a feeling about this business of any sort before you visited?

 

Lulu Miller:

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-I went with a little skepticism.

 

Latif Nasser:

[crosstalk 00:21:31] ring the doorbell? Great. Thanks.

 

Lulu Miller:

Uh, you know, an eyebrow down and scrunched.

 

Latif Nasser:

So, the bleeding facility was just in the kinda understated non-descript office park land.

 

Lulu Miller:

There's, like, people in capri pants and sandals.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

Woo!

 

Latif Nasser:

But then when you go on the inside.

 

Lulu Miller:

Suddenly you're hit with this, like-

 

Lulu Miller:

I can smell it.

 

Lulu Miller:

... wash of a smell of crabss.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh.

 

Brad Parish:

Yes, indeed.

 

Latif Nasser:

Hey. Wow, that smell. How would you describe that smell?

 

Lulu Miller:

Kinda crab mist.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Latif Nasser:

It's a high ceiling, 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 Miller:

Do you need us to move?

 

Latif Nasser:

... to be-

 

Lulu Miller:

Do you mind if I-

 

Latif Nasser:

... like exactly-

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, you need us out of the way.

 

Latif Nasser:

... in the way-

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

... of all these busy people rushing around.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

Got gloves on.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

And inside each bin-

 

Latif Nasser:

Are the horseshooe crabs.

 

Lulu Miller:

Twistin' and turnin' a little, wavin' their tails.

 

Latif Nasser:

All heaped on top of each other. About 20 per bin.

 

Lulu Miller:

Flexin' their claws.

 

Brad Parish:

So, uh, we have our crabs coming in from our supplier.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Nasser:

Scrub the shell.

 

Brad Parish:

Pop the barnacles off.

 

Lulu Miller:

They spray it.

 

Latif Nasser:

Dunk it, buff it-

 

Robert Krulwich:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

It's like Wonka Land for crabs in here-

 

Latif Nasser:

(laughs) Yeah.

 

Lulu Miller:

... it's like a whole world.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, we're in the way.

 

Latif Nasser:

Once they're washed-

 

Lulu Miller:

So it's a rack of one, two, three, four, five, six-

 

Latif Nasser:

It's time for the bleeding.

 

Lulu Miller:

Sixteen crabs wheeled over are gonna go in.

 

Latif Nasser:

Crabs are taken outta their bins, folded in half-

 

Lulu Miller:

So their tails are kind of underneath-

 

Latif Nasser:

... 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 Miller:

Oh, can we go, can we go in? Or-

 

Brad Parish:

We cannot go in.

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, we can't go in.

 

Speaker 28:

No, no, no, sorry.

 

Lulu Miller:

Okay, got it.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Miller:

But we could peak right in.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

And it was from that needle that this blood-

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Was slowly dripping into these glass bottles.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Robert Krulwich:

What is your, uh, emotional sense of this scene?

 

Lulu Miller:

Like, it was kind of this, uh, feeling some sort of, like, what we're doing here is weird and kind of vampirey. I-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-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hmm.

 

Lulu Miller:

There's, like, so many-

 

Lulu Miller:

We were in the factory-

 

Lulu Miller:

Dozens and dozens of boxes filled-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Lulu Miller:

... each with, like, 10 huge crabs.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

Okay, so here we, okay, what are we lookin' at? Can I touch her?

 

Brad Parish:

Yeah.

 

Lulu Miller:

When one of the guys in the factory-

 

Speaker 29:

Oh, sure you can.

 

Lulu Miller:

Had pulled out from these bins this big female horseshoe crab.

 

Speaker 29:

Okay. Oh, yeah, you wanna knock?

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, I do.

 

Lulu Miller:

And he's just sort of holding her by the shell-

 

Lulu Miller:

Hi, hi.

 

Speaker 29:

Oh, whoa. That's, the tail is really comin' right at me here.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, so her little, her claws are goin' up, and her tail's kinda waving around.

 

Speaker 29:

Right, so if you get your-

 

Lulu Miller:

There's a lot of hit... Yeah, claw activity.

 

Speaker 29:

Exactly, and so it'll take these claws-

 

Lulu Miller:

And he, like, turned her over so she's upside down, and then he took his hand and let her claws kinda grab his hand.

 

Speaker 29:

And, so that they're sorta pinching my hands here, but it-

 

Lulu Miller:

Does that hurt?

 

Speaker 29:

... it doesn't hurt. There's, there's not much power to 'em, they're just using that to sort of grab the food-

 

Lulu Miller:

Can I try?

 

Speaker 29:

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

 

Speaker 30:

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Lulu Miller:

Can I get a little pinch?

 

Speaker 29:

Yep.

 

Speaker 30:

They can't hurt cha, yeah.

 

Lulu Miller:

And so, I just kinda slowly stuck my hand out toward her claws-

 

Lulu Miller:

Aw.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Speaker 29:

Oh, here, I'm gonna take-

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, they're very qu... Yeah, they're very [crosstalk 00:26:12], it's very claspy.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

It's actually kind of like (laughs)-

 

Speaker 29:

It's kind of a massage (laughs).

 

Lulu Miller:

... it's kind of sweet. [crosstalk 00:26:27] So, I am being, like, this horseshoe crab is-

 

Speaker 29:

Okay.

 

Lulu Miller:

... is holding my hand (laughs). Wow.

 

Lulu Miller:

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-

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Lulu Miller:

... in the sea, and I'm upside down, and I'm about to go into, like, wh... 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, i-it was almost, it wasn't like it was in pain, but I had this almost, like, primal creature to creature, "Help me!"

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, I mean, part of me felt that too, uh, but, I mean, on the other hand, like, they, 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 Nasser:

They're set free.

 

Brad Parish:

Straight back to the water.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Uh, about 500, 000, uh, horseshoe crabs every year get bled.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

So, so some of them do die after the bleeding.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Huh.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

I, I think it's 15, 15%.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Uh, you know, they actually, in, in that original paper that I looked at-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Again, Alexis Madrigal.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

They were actually able to see that a lot of the, the crabs don't have... Like, bled crabs and non-bled crabs, like, have slightly different movement patterns, um, and that's because, you know, maybe one of them is missing 30% of its blood. But they needed to, uh, they needed to double check on that, and so they did see that the bled animals appear more lethargic, they move, you know, uh, more slowly, and... Like, imagine if, imagine if you had to go, like, harvest deer, and then bleed them of 30% of their blood, and then you'd, like, leave them back out in the forest. Like, there's something about that that seems so-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

... bizarre.

 

Jad Abumrad:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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 eed 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. 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 Nasser:

It's kind of weirdly beautiful [crosstalk 00:30:00].

 

Latif Nasser:

The Delaware Bay.

 

Speaker 16:

It looks like its very fresh-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 16:

... and not dried up.

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Latif Nasser:

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:

Oh, look, you, I don't know if you've been noticing all the eggs-

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Glen:

And here-

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh.

 

Glen:

... this is an egg cluster right there.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, that's, oh, wow.

 

Glen:

There's another one. So, we'll-

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jay Bolton:

Yeah. Yep.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jay Bolton:

Uh, my name is Jay Bolton.

 

Latif Nasser:

A biologist.

 

Jay Bolton:

In the Global Quality Laboratories at Eli Lilly and Company.

 

Latif Nasser:

So, Eli Lilly and Company; it's this huge pharmaceutical company that makes, you know, cancer drugs, and anti-depressants.

 

Jay Bolton:

A lot of insulin, and things like that.

 

Latif Nasser:

And real quick-

 

Speaker 32:

People are at the core of our commitment to manufacturing.

 

Latif Nasser:

Here's a message from an executive.

 

Speaker 32:

And the driving force behind our innovation.

 

Latif Nasser:

Radio Lab is brought to you by... Anyway, um, one of the things the company's been helping innovate is.

 

Jay Bolton:

Horseshoe crab blood.

 

Latif Nasser:

A synthetic version of horseshoe crab blood.

 

Jay Bolton:

Yeah, so, I guess-

 

Latif Nasser:

And, you know, Jay explained to me if you kinda, 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 Nasser:

And, you know-

 

Soundbite:

Global warming.

 

Soundbite:

Global warming.

 

Soundbite:

Climate change is real.

 

Latif Nasser:

Rising sea levels, habitat loss-

 

Jay Bolton:

I could have some supply chain consequences.

 

Latif Nasser:

Which isn't good.

 

Jay Bolton:

No.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jay Bolton:

Yeah, so the problem is-

 

Latif Nasser:

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-

 

Soundbite:

They're coming, they're coming.

 

Soundbite:

Our good friends, the birds.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 egg, 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 Nasser:

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 Nasser:

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

 

Speaker 34:

So, good afternoon, everyone. And, um, welcome here. This is a great place to be today.

 

Latif Nasser:

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.

 

Speaker 34:

The big headline new here is that the pharmaceutical industry can actually replace probably up to 90% of the use of horseshoe crab blood without incurring any major regulatory change.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

Is that a threesome? What is goin' on here?

 

Speaker 16:

A little, a little orgy.

 

Latif Nasser:

What they love.

 

Latif Nasser:

That's a big orgy.

 

Speaker 16:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

It's a big orgy.

 

Lulu Miller:

Well, but here's the weird thing. I-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, that could be a really bad thing for them.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Yeah. Exactly.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 Miller:

Because, before we ever valued them for their blood-

 

Alexis Madrigal:

We basically did two things with them.

 

Lulu Miller:

Thing one...

 

Alexis Madrigal:

We turned them into a fertilizer.

 

Lulu Miller:

We would catch 'em, boil 'em.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

And grind 'em, and then just stick 'em in the soil as a way of promoting plant growth, or...

 

Lulu Miller:

Thing two...

 

Alexis Madrigal:

We'd catch 'em, cut 'em up, and use 'em to, like, uh, as bait to catch, uh, more valuable species like, uh, particular kinds of snails.

 

Latif Nasser:

Okay, so I have right here in front of me... This comes from the Atlantic State's Marine Fisheries Commission, which, their numbers say that, you know, uh, as of the late '90s, there were nearly three million horseshoe crabs being killed every year for commercial fishing.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Three million, wow.

 

Latif Nasser:

But more recently we've put restrictions on how many horseshoe crabs can be used for commercial fishing, for bait. Um, it's even, like, in a lot of states, it's a crime to go to a beach and just take a, a, 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 kinda wanna be hooked up to one that's super high value and that doesn't kill you.

 

Lulu Miller:

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.

 

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 Nasser:

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

 

Jerry Gult:

Hi, nice to meet you.

 

Latif Nasser:

Thanks for havin' us here.

 

Jerry Gult:

Yeah, more than glad to.

 

Lulu Miller:

This is so cool.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 Miller:

Yes!

 

Latif Nasser:

Yes!

 

Lulu Miller:

Yes, always. I can-

 

Lulu Miller:

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 Miller:

What a peaceful little spot.

 

Lulu Miller:

So, we were in this forest-

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, I know, this feels like the most secluded place in the world.

 

Lulu Miller:

With Jerry, walking around this little pond.

 

Latif Nasser:

I wore the exactly wrong shoes.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

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 Nasser:

Oh, what do you got there?

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Latif Nasser:

That's just a bottle of water.

 

Jerry Gult:

No, it's more than-

 

Lulu Miller:

But then he held the bottle up to our faces.

 

Jerry Gult:

See the babies?

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, they're tiny!

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, all of those?

 

Jerry Gult:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

 

Latif Nasser:

Every... Oh, wow, there's so many of them. How many-

 

Jerry Gult:

Oh, yeah, they do, um, 100, 000 eggs a season.

 

Latif Nasser:

Wow.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, they're, like, the size of a really round grain of rice (laughs). Kind of like pearled cous couse.

 

Latif Nasser:

Pearled cous cous is gross.

 

Jerry Gult:

(laughs).

 

Lulu Miller:

Are they, the, like, are they, were they laying the eggs here, or di, or di, or did you-

 

Jerry Gult:

No-

 

Lulu Miller:

... get the eggs from the, where you-

 

Jerry Gult:

They lay their eggs along the shore.

 

Latif Nasser:

Oh, on this bit of shore here?[crosstalk 00:37:31]

 

Jerry Gult:

Uh-huh.

 

Lulu Miller:

So they're spawn even-

 

Latif Nasser:

[crosstalk 00:37:32] Oh, literally right here. Oh, wow.

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, that's so cool.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jerry Gult:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

But Jerry told us, uh, the gist of it is, back when his dad was doing seafood fishing-

 

Jerry Gult:

And I was just a tike then, that was in the '70s.

 

Latif Nasser:

His dad was catching a lot of horseshoe carb, selling 'em all 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 sellin' 'em for bait, he'd, you know, he'd make a deal for him. He would buy 'im.

 

Latif Nasser:

But him for more money. So Jerry's dad said sure.

 

Jerry Gult:

We've been doin' it ever since.

 

Latif Nasser:

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 makin' sure medication is, is safe for us and, can't say that about softshell crabs, or-

 

Lulu Miller:

Right.

 

Jerry Gult:

... or gur... grooper, you know?

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, you touch ever one and then you touch it again and return it.

 

Jerry Gult:

Well, I touch you.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Jerry Gult:

[crosstalk 00:38:50] Indirectly, indirectly I'm touchin' all of us here because we're all part of it, so it's pretty neat thing.

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Jerry Gult:

Well, I have a lot of respect for 'em, and I almost feel like it's, um, divine design, the horseshoe crab is. You know, I've seen 'em, fishin' for 'em, you know, they're a nuisance then, and now I see 'em on this side where they're important to human society. And, um, I just, draws me back to the idea that is, 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.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Outta curiosity, where did that, where did that leave the two of you?

 

Latif Nasser:

Well, well for me, I mean, Jerry the, the fisherman, he's, he's totally right, like, we, we just figured this out. These crabs have been Clark Kenting us this whole time.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Latif Nasser:

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

 

Lulu Miller:

Mmm.

 

Latif Nasser:

We're, we're baby chumps.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, and they're just, like, there is something miraculous inside them and, and in a certain way, it's easy to stand next to them and feel almost small. Like, that we're not unlike an astroid, or just another thing they're probably gonna endure. Like, we are a blip to them, and yet we're a dangerous blip and, 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 Miller:

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:

'Cause you can injure them, the muscle in the tail. We keep 'em covered when we transport 'em.

 

Lulu Miller:

They're also on a time clock.

 

Jerry Gult:

We've gotta get 'em back as quick as possible.

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Jerry Gult:

We give a manicure, pedicure.

 

Lulu Miller:

... 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 Miller:

And he showed us how he returns them to the water, and he, like, (laughs) he built this fricking water slide-

 

Jerry Gult:

A slide to go down.

 

Lulu Miller:

... to do it more gently.

 

Jerry Gult:

No, now we pick 'em up, set 'em into the slide, and the water takes 'em down to the river. Before, we used to pick 'em up and toss 'em.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Jerry Gult:

And we've gotten away from tossin' 'em. It's amazing. I got a slide on my dock, 200 foot long water slide where they re-hydrate on their way to the river. See how fast they [inaudible 00:41:55] a way down?

 

Lulu Miller:

Yes.

 

Jerry Gult:

Don't wanna get your finger caught on there. [inaudible 00:42:00].

 

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

 

Jerry Gult:

Wanna hold it?

 

Lulu Miller:

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

 

Jerry Gult:

That's the male.

 

Lulu Miller:

Okay.

 

Jerry Gult:

And the female's always bigger.

 

Lulu Miller:

And we just interrupted his embrace.

 

Latif Nasser:

His game.

 

Lulu Miller:

His cuddling.

 

Latif Nasser:

His cuddling.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This piece was reported by Latif Nasser, with help from Damiano Marchetti, and of course Lulu Miller, and was produced by Annie McEwan and Matt Kilty, with help from Liza Yeager. Thanks to Laquia Wimbish and everyone at [inaudible 00:42:40] Global Endotoxins Testing Summit. Mike Kenrick and Brad Floyd of the South Carolina department of Natural Resources. Also, Tamara Anne Hall at Eli Lilly, and of course, Kate Contreras, John Dubczak, and the rest of the team at Charles River. I'm Jab Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening.

 

Soundbite:

To play the message, press two. Start of message.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Hey, it's Alexis Madrigal.

 

Lulu Miller:

Hey, this is Lulu.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Calling you from a foggy A area.

 

Lulu Miller:

That was my voice on the machine, I had no idea that was still there.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Radio Lab was created by Jad Abumrad and produced by Soran Wheeler.

 

Lulu Miller:

Dylan Keef is our director of sound design.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Anna Matasar-Padilla is our manager director.

 

Lulu Miller:

Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becka Bressier.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Rachael Cusick, David Gabbel, Bethel Habte.

 

Lulu Miller:

Tracy Hunt, who is so fun on Twitter.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Matt Kilty, Robert Krulwich.

 

Lulu Miller:

Annie McEwan, and Latif Nasser, Melissa O'Donnell.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and-

 

Lulu Miller:

And Molly the web, web, Webster.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

With help from Sheema Olaleye

 

Lulu Miller:

Sheema Olaleye... Yeah. Sheema Olaylee.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.

 

Lulu Miller:

You would think I could've done that better.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Thanks, guys.

 

Lulu Miller:

I've been working in radio for a decade and a half.

 

Alexis Madrigal:

Bye.

 

Lulu Miller:

Bye!

 

Soundbite:

End of message.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Written on a text message from Lulu Miller, written on a text message from Lulu Miller.

 

Lulu Miller:

Hello.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hello.

 

Lulu Miller:

How's it goin'?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh, pretty good. Um, hang up the phone, you should still be there.

 

Lulu Miller:

Hi.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Beautiful. Um, so, uh, word on the street-

 

Lulu Miller:

Test, test.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... is you have a story to read?

 

Lulu Miller:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Lulu Miller:

I do. I do have a story. I think my levels are okay. Um, I have a really weird horseshoe crab deep dive. So you have to pretend, you have to, like, really channel me speaking like a kinda Jersey dude, like, I picture that this voice is, like, a, a, a Jersey kinda Tony Soprano voice.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs). Great, are you gonna try and to the voice-

 

Lulu Miller:

But I'm not gonna try to imitate it, okay?

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs) Okay.

 

Lulu Miller:

But, like, go there in your-

 

Jad Abumrad:

I will, I will be translating it into that voice in my head.

 

Lulu Miller:

Okay. Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right.

 

Lulu Miller:

All right. So it's called M-Me and Jane. There's 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 unsuctioning all over your shell. "Flipsies!" She'd say when her work was complete. "My turn." Sorry, I'm, uh, short of breath. This is a pregnancy curse, but I'll just... There might be some breaths you're gonna have to take out. I'm sorry.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, I didn't even notice. It sounded great.

 

Lulu Miller:

Okay, good. "Flipsies!" She's stay when her work was complete. "My turn." And I'd climb back up onto her back, tour 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. Two, after years of being a bit lazy and allowing my Jane's shell to become encrusted in salt scabs, algae, barnacles, and more than a few muscles, I've come to find it all quite beautiful.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 ophthalmic 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 back side. I know the very day they latched on.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 yada, yada, yada. 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 suctioned onto her somewhere between the boyhood star gazing scene, spooky starfish star resonance, and the seagull attack scene.

 

Lulu Miller:

Even if I hadn't been too exhausted from my fit of inspiration to work on her barnacles that night, I doubt I would've 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'd fear I'd forget that life would become awash. I whisper these kinds of things to Jane when she seems ashame of her little green beard, or when she's sluggish from her kelp tails pulling in the tide. "These stains and scabs are the particulars of our experience," I tell her. "They are our memories made physical. A record forged in desiccating sea stink of our love."

 

Lulu Miller:

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, a hump of liquid emerging from itself. What I'd give to reach out with the tiny hairs in my most private of spots, my nathobasis, 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 mollusk hunting, 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 build up.

 

Lulu Miller:

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.

 

Lulu Miller:

But, the moon proved her wrong. The brightening moon and the decent of thousands of new horseshoe crabs on the cove. It's the spawn! Of course, the upcoming spawn 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 pedipalps out in the ocean holding onto the edge of Jane's shell with your grippers, ten thousand other crabs clacking so hard around you it sometimes induces a sea steam.

 

Lulu Miller:

What happens afterwards is unsettling. Something strange comes over everybody. Jefferson is no longer high strung Jefferson, his wife no longer a primadonna. Frank, who's always been kinda weird and lonely seems okay. Everybody is lifted from their selves, or rather ourselves seem to lift from our bodies and leave us. We become one, without our peculiarities. A giant ten thousand clawed being.

 

Lulu Miller:

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.

 

Lulu Miller:

I think there could be a book in this, a sort of anti Hardinian 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 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.

 

Lulu Miller:

Once we've watch as tiny versions of us, smaller than clams with little button tails disappear into the surf, the collective conscious begins to 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.

 

Lulu Miller:

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.

 

Lulu Miller:

"Ha!" She said after she heard the telltale rumble from underneath my prosoma. 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 clattery burp came out instead. "Ha!" I said. "Mutual... Mutual molting." Jane sighed. "Splendid."

 

Lulu Miller:

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 spawn. Pristine shells." "I thought you liked my encrustations," said Jane, staring out at the sea. "I-I do!" I gulped. "My darling, of course I do."

 

Lulu Miller:

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 new Jane would need to find a secluded place to hide as her shell hardened. "Shall I find you at our spot?" "Sure," she said, and began to slowly, carefully step away.

 

Lulu Miller:

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 weight. Something about them made me feel very worried, but I couldn't tell you what. Eventually, I too found my shell splitting. It wasn't the easiest of molts. 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, bloody and gelatinous. I limped to some bushes nearby. There, I waited as my back began to harden.

 

Lulu Miller:

Through the brambles, 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 moons 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.

 

Lulu Miller:

I awakened to legs, human ones, swooshing by my brambles. 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, yanks 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 its strange hand along my smooth shell. It turns to examine old Jane, her sweet fuzz, her barnacles. Our life. Her shell cracks under the rubber fad 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 brambles as it runs away with me, as it runs away with my past self, dragging it ruthlessly down the shore.

 

Lulu Miller:

The spawn 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 under water 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. I ask Frank to help me clean it but he spits muscles and tells me I've gotta 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. Jane."

 

Lulu Miller:

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 to promise of the collective," I think. "Sometimes one's self can be a pretty good thing." A self like a Jane, for instance.

 

Lulu Miller:

I keep getting hit with shards of grit that instead of bouncing off my shell now get caught 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?

 

Lulu Miller:

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.

 

Lulu Miller:

(laughs). There's my horseshoe crabs.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs). Aw, that's great! That's really nice.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah, so-

 

Jad Abumrad:

That was really nice to listen to while lying on the floor here.

 

Lulu Miller:

Oh, good, I'm glad.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's lovely. Um, I, I didn't, I had no idea you had such an affection for horseshoe crabs before all this began. Before the story began.

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The, the holding hand, the holding hand scene makes a lot, a lotta sense.

 

Lulu Miller:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

I mean, it made sense in the moment-

 

Lulu Miller:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... listening to a tape of, even with its context, it makes more sense now. 

 

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