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Many medical products come from living creatures, but horseshoe crabs play a unique role. The milky-blue blood of these living fossils that have barely changed for hundreds of millions of years contains a protein called LAL that drug developers use to test their products for common toxins. Thousands of the crabs are harvested every year, bled in labs and returned (mostly) alive to the ocean.

Kristoffer Whitney and Jolie Crunelle, researchers who study science and public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, explain why conservationists are worried about this use of horseshoe crabs, and the growing call to shift to synthetic substitutes for LAL. It’s a controversy that cuts across multiple regulatory fields and requires striking a balance between protecting nature and human health.

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Jennifer Weeks

Senior Environment + Cities Editor

Horseshoe crabs in spawning season at Reeds Beach, N.J., on June 13, 2023. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Horseshoe crab blood is vital for testing intravenous drugs, but new synthetic alternatives could mean pharma won’t bleed this unique species dry

Kristoffer Whitney, Rochester Institute of Technology; Jolie Crunelle, Rochester Institute of Technology

Horseshoe crabs play a unique role in medicine, but they’re also ecologically important in their home waters along the Atlantic coast. Can regulators balance the needs of humans and nature?

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