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Horseshoe Crabs and NASA

September 3, 2001

The horseshoe crab’s highly developed sensitivity to endotoxins, has been seized upon by another industry that worries about bacteria: NASA. NASA’s Planetary Protection Program has discovered the value of the Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) test in maintaining a sterile environment for its Mars missions.

“There is an international agreement that any spacecraft that intentionally lands on another planet must be certified clean of Earth microbes, but there is also a possibility of dangerous new organisms coming back,” explained Norman Wainwright, a cell biologist who has studied the horseshoe crab for many years.

He is now collaborating with NASA to improve the LAL test, which they hope to use for the Mars 2003 mission. The horseshoe crab’s blood could prevent scientists from mistaking Earth microbes that accidentally make their way to Martian soil for Martian life. At the same time, crab blood could discover a new microbe never before detected.

“We are looking deeper and harder because the technology forces us to look deeper. In Darwin’s time, little technology was needed to make simple yet profound observations, but now we have the technology to ask different questions,” Wainwright said. “The answers,” he said, “may lead to both newly discovered life and prolonged human life.”

© 2001 The Boston Globe