PSU Receives $300,000 Federal Grant to Continue Studies of Horseshoe Crabs

July 14th, 2010 by Adam

In a darkened laboratory in the basement of Plymouth State University’s Boyd Science Center, research student Daniel Hull deftly removes a horseshoe crab from its underwater tank and places it on an examination table. The crab is a living fossil whose body has remained virtually unchanged for 400 million years.

Daniel Hull with horseshoe crab
PSU graduate student Daniel Hull examines a horseshoe crab as part of PSU’s ongoing research funded by the National Science Foundation

Despite its Paleozoic heritage, the crab has much to offer today’s science, according to Chris Chabot, the PSU biology professor who oversees the four-year-old research project along with Winsor H. Watson, professor of zoology at the University of New Hampshire and Susan Swope, Director of the Biotechnology Center at PSU. Thanks to a $300,000 federal grant from the National Science Foundation, PSU students and faculty will continue to study this ancient creature, providing valuable research data on issues as diverse as cancer research and mental health disorders. What’s the connection? Chabot is studying the crabs internal “clocks” and how the sun and tides affect its behavior. Other living creatures, including humans, also have internal “clocks” that affect behavior.

“Our findings in horseshoe crabs can be possibly extended to humans, so that we can understand how these internal clocks that control virtually all of our physiological processes interact,” said Chabot. “Problems with clocks in humans have been shown to be the basis for such things as seasonal affective and bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia…and time of day effects in treating cancer.”

Additionally, horseshoe crab blood is used to find certain bacteria and toxins in such medical products as dialysis equipment, antibiotics and intravenous solutions.

Chabot’s horseshoe crab research started almost five years ago with an initial, $298,000 federal grant that launched a program that dozens of students have participated in, both in the laboratory and at the research site on New Hampshire’s Great Bay. Chabot and Watson and their students use a sophisticated ultrasonic telemetry system to continuously monitor the activity of horseshoe crabs on and around their traditional “mating beaches” for several weeks at a time. Over 40 crabs (both male and female) have been tagged with sound emitting devices and released back into the water off Adam’s Point in Newington, N.H and they have used several methods to keep track of their movements. Chabot and Watson have a number of “listening posts” in the bay that automatically and continually log information from the tags about location, depth and activity, and they also use hand held devices and a boat to locate animals and gather information about their activities.

Meanwhile, 36 horseshoe crabs in activity cages in the Boyd Science Center are being studied to determine the relative contributions of their internal clocks and environmental factors such as light, temperature and salinity on their behavior. Now that he and co-principal investigator Win Watson have secured a second grant, the opportunities will continue for student research.

“They play a role at every level,” Chabot said. “Students are in the lab, they are doing hands-on work with horseshoe crabs, they’re doing molecular biology, hypothesis testing, writing up the results and making presentations about the findings. I’m very happy to get this new round of grant funding,” said Chabot. “We’ve made a number of fundamental discoveries in horseshoe crab biology, we’ve published a number of papers with student co-authors, from behavior to physiology. While this work takes a tremendous amount of time and effort on the student’s part, they feel great about the experience, in part because it greatly strengthens their applications to graduate schools and employers.”

“It really helps you get you the experience you need to advance your career,” Hull said. “Once you actually do the work, from ordering the supplies to summarizing the research findings, it gives you something substantive you can associate with.”

Other researchers are taking notice of the work being conducted at PSU. Chris Chabot and Win Watson are co-editing a special issue of Current Zoology which is entitled, “Horseshoe Crab Behavior from Molecules to Movements.”

For more information about this release, contact Bruce Lyndes, PSU Media Relations Mgr., (603) 535-2775 or