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Ancient Mariners: Horseshoe Crabs in the Lens and Labs

Date of event 24th October 2023

Congratulations to Laurent Ballesta for winning the prestigious portfolio award at the 2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition with his captivating photograph titled 'The Golden Horseshoe.'

This remarkable image showcases a tri-spine horseshoe crab gracefully moving across the mud, its golden protective carapace concealing 12 appendages. Above the horseshoe crab, a trio of juvenile golden trevallies hover, ready to seize edible morsels churned up by its passage. Laurent Ballesta, a marine biologist and photographer from France, ventured to the protected waters of Pangatalan Island in the Philippines to capture this mesmerizing scene. His dedication to exploring the oceans and portraying their wonders through art has led to numerous scientific expeditions, resulting in unprecedented images.

The tri-spine horseshoe crab, a species that has endured for over 100 million years, faces challenges such as habitat destruction and overfishing for both food and its blood, which is used in vaccine development. However, in the protected waters of Pangatalan Island, there is a glimmer of hope for its survival. (Photograph: Laurent Ballesta/2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year)[1]

In the world of science and pharmaceutical testing, horseshoe crabs have played a pivotal role for the past four decades. Their importance lies in their hemolymph, which contains a clottable protein known as 'factor C.' This protein serves as a crucial component in the Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) reagent used for endotoxin testing of medical products and devices. Unfortunately, the extensive use of horseshoe crabs in the pharmaceutical testing industry has led to a concerning decline in global populations.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Recent developments have led to the creation of a synthetic alternative to 'factor C' called recombinant factor C (rFC). This groundbreaking innovation has the potential to reduce the need to bleed horseshoe crabs by as much as 90%.[2] Cloned from the horseshoe crab's 'factor C,' rFC can be easily reproduced in the laboratory, drastically reducing the demand for crab blood. This represents a significant leap forward in horseshoe crab conservation efforts, offering the possibility of restoring their populations to healthy levels.

"As scientists at Wickham Micro LTD, we see the development of recombinant factor C as a beacon of hope for horseshoe crab conservation. This synthetic alternative not only benefits our industry but also contributes significantly to the protection of these ancient creatures and the preservation of their delicate ecosystems." - Kate MacGregor Lead Scientist

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2023/oct/11/2023-wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-winners-in-pictures

[2][Reference: Maloney, T., Phelan, R., and Simmons, N. (2018). Saving the horseshoe crab: A synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood for endotoxin detection. PLOS Biology, 16(10), p.e2006607. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2006607]


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