Horseshoe crab blood runs blue and opaque, like antifreeze mixed with milk. And for what exactly do humans need the blood of a living fossil? A sort of witchcraft, you might say, for it literally keeps people alive. Horseshoe-crab blood is exquisitely sensitive to toxins from bacteria. It is used to test for contamination during the manufacture of anything that might go inside the human body: every shot, every IV drip, and every implanted medical device.
Hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are bled each year to produce a substance called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL). LAL is used to test intravenous drugs and medical equipment for the presence of bacteria and endotoxin, a poison found in many bacteria.
Horseshoe crabs use hemocyanin to carry oxygen through their blood. Because of the copper present in hemocyanin, their blood is blue. This amazing blue blood contains a special clotting agent called LAL (Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate) which is used to test the purity of medicines.
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The blue color comes from copper in the blood. But that’s not its most interesting feature. The blood contains a special clotting agent. It’s used to make a concoction called Limulus amebocyte lysate or LAL. Before LAL, scientists had no easy way of knowing whether a vaccine or medical tool was contaminated with bacteria. Like E. coli or salmonella. Scientists would inject vaccines into huge numbers of rabbits and then basically wait for symptoms to show up. But when LAL was approved for use in 1970, it changed everything. Drop a minuscule amount of it onto a medical device or vaccine, and the LAL will encase any gram-negative bacteria in a jelly cocoon. While it can’t kill the bacteria, the jelly seal is like a fire alarm. Alerting us to the presence of what could become a potentially lethal infection and prevent it from spreading.