Will Big Pharma Help Save Some of the Oldest Marine Life on Earth?

Dale Gerhard/The Press of Atlantic City via AP

Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment. Birds known as Red Knots migrate to the Arctic to breed. To gather the necessary caloric reserves, each bird needs to feed on approximately 400,000 horseshoe crabs’ eggs along the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, the crabs’ numbers have declined precipitously, and the birds haven’t been breeding as much as before. The problem is that biomedical companies bleed the live crabs to use their blue blood in endotoxin tests — and as their numbers drop, so do the numbers of birds.

At Audubon magazine, Deborah Cramer examines how Eli Lilly biologist Jay Bolden tackled this ecological problem by convincing his employer to switch from crab blood to an effective synthetic. Bolden’s next challenge is to get the rest of the pharmaceutical industry to follow suit.

But Bolden had a compelling reason: “I’m a birder,” he says, “so this hit close to home.” He’d seen Red Knots, one in Delaware’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and then another in Ireland’s Ballycotton Marsh. And a few years ago, at an endotoxin summit in Delaware hosted by Lonza, Bolden witnessed the arrival of horseshoe crabs. “We were walking along Pickering Beach, in Delaware,” he recalls, “and the beach, seemingly empty, suddenly filled with horseshoe crabs coming in from the sea. It was a religious experience for me.”

The longtime birder didn’t need to be told how badly shorebirds along the Atlantic Flyway need horseshoe crab eggs. Further, he had learned about the plight of horseshoe crabs worldwide in 2013, during a Lonza webinar with Glenn Gauvry, president of Ecological Research and Development Group, an organization dedicated to the conservation of horseshoe crabs across the globe. While population data on the animals in Asia isn’t fully known, “horseshoe crab populations in Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, once vibrant, are now endangered,” Gauvry has written. It is questionable, he writes, whether current takes of horseshoe crabs for endotoxin testing “can be sustained, much less meet the projected future demands of this rapidly growing market.”

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