KBI awarded grant for local horseshoe crab research

SEPTEMBER 21, 2018, GREENSBORO, NC — Horseshoe crabs find the Georgia coast prime habitat, and a North Carolina-based company received a National Science Foundation grant to conducted what the company is calling “a novel approach” to collecting the crabs’ bodily fluids, which are often used in human biomedicine.

According to the company, Kepley BioSystems, which also goes by the acronym KBI, “To comply with (federal Food and Drug Administration) sterility testing protocols, hundreds of thousands of wild (horseshoe crabs) are captured for the biomedical industry to extract a unique component of their blood and then return them to the water every year.”

The idea is to develop what is being called a horseshoe crab ranch, in which scientists will seek to develop a more-sustainable method for this process. The need for sustainability covers several reasons, including the fact migratory shorebirds like red knots and the ruddy turnstone depend on horseshoe crab eggs for a key part of their diet. The rufa, a red knot subspecies, is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

There’s also the matter of the tri-spine horseshoe crab in Asia, which has seen significantly dwindling numbers over decades.According to the study that led to the NSF grant, “sometimes-lethal biomedical bleeding process and associated behavioral changes pose a risk to horseshoe crab viability after bleeding and once returned to the waters. As a result, regulators and environmentalists are concerned that current trends and overfishing of this marine arthropod will significantly impact the surrounding ecosystem.”

The study notes that “healthy populations of horseshoe crabs are vital to restoring and maintaining ecosystems while balancing the need for medical and research applications entirely dependent on these unique creatures.”

A component of horseshoe crab blood is known for being able to detect what’s called gram-negative bacteria, which can be particularly harmful to people. Gram-negative bacteria have an outer layer that acts like camouflage from people’s immune systems, allowing that bacteria to go about its business. In a related project, KBI is also working on synthetic horseshoe crabs eggs that can provide nutrition to shorebirds in areas with depleted horseshoe crab populations.

“Working with Lance Toland (lead inventor of the synthetic horseshoe crab eggs and a resident of Coastal Georgia), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the University of Georgia (Marine Extension and) Georgia Sea Grant team, and the Jekyll Island Authority all provided vital support for us to develop the horseshoe crab ranch proposal,” Kristen Dellinger, principal investigator for the project, said in a statement.