A husband and wife scientist team in England has devised a titillating means of identifying oncoming illnesses in patients by using a bioluminescent mollusk called a piddock. Dr. Jan Knight and Dr. Robert Knight have already started using their method on the English Olympic sailing team to help monitor their health before the impending games.

Here’s what piddocks look like, glowing and in someone’s hand.

The process works like this: Piddocks let off a blue-green glow when a protein they contain called Pholasin comes into contact with free radical chemicals. Free radicals are also produced by human white blood cells when they are gearing up to fight harmful bacteria and viruses. In many cases, the white blood cells effectively…

…know that their human hosts are sick before the humans do, and begin releasing free radicals accordingly before any overt symptoms have emerged. Thus, if you want to know if you have an impending illness, you only need to eat a piddock whole (they’re only about 6 inches long). If your stomach glows an eerie green color in the dark, you’re about to get sick. If not, you’re probably just stressed out or overtired.

My last couple of sentences were complete lies. The Knight’s company, Knights Scientific Ltd., has isolated the protein found in piddocks, Pholasin, and have produced a product from it. They mix their product with small amounts of human blood (taken from a painless pinprick), and then measure the amount of light that is released from the mixture.

For athlete’s and their trainers, these tests can help to determine if the competitors are at their peak levels before competitions, if they need rest or maybe even medication.


  1. #1 HolfordWatch
    August 4, 2008

    Somewhere, there are self-styled ‘nutrition therapists’ who are Sad and Regretful that you can not implant a piddock as a sort of onboard oxidative stress detector that will signal you when you need to take more vitamin C or antioxidants. The motto being – don’t obtain from a well-balanced diet what you can purchase in the expensive form of pills without trials…

    I hope that this gets into mainstream media as I want the version that involves swallowing whole piddocks to be picked up so small boys and girls everywhere can squeal with delight or revulsion.

  2. #2 Jives
    August 4, 2008

    Wait … what if you want your stomach to glow? Can I still swallow them whole?

  3. #3 Scott Conger
    August 4, 2008

    If they want to preserve that grossness factor of eating a mollusk whole they can always market their product as “mollusk goo”. I’d buy that.

  4. #4 Ian
    August 5, 2008

    So the piddock detects radicals that are out of the paddock?!

    What’s the deal with releasing the radicals? Do the radicals do anything with regard to the impending disease or does the release of them somehow free-up resources or otherwise enable the white cells?

    Aren’t free radicals generally considered to be harmful?

    C’mon guys! You complain that the traditional media is too shallow on coverage of health and whelkfare, yet here’s a great story and you’re clamming up! Don’t be so shellfish! Quit crawfishing and make with the details!

    Sorry if I sound crabby. It’s early.

  5. #5 Andrew
    August 5, 2008

    Great questions Ian. Please find the answers and let us know.

  6. #6 HolfordWatch
    August 5, 2008

    The Daily Mail has a version of this story: The mollusc that knows when you are about to become ill. It is reasonable for the DM but it is regrettable that they ignore the distinction between viral and bacterial infections when extolling the properties:

    When the protein is mixed with blood the white blood cell activity can be measured by how much light is produced…
    ‘We can tell if people are training too hard, because their white cells get hectic,” Dr Robert said.
    ‘We can also see the beginnings of infection, so a physician can prescribe antibiotics early on.’

    I have to admit that given both the pro- and anti – inflammatory aspects of exercise (pdf), I am a little curious as to what ‘hectic white cells’ indicate. Overall though, this story is charming and it highlights that no matter how obscure or off-beat some areas of science may seem, that is no indication of their eventual usefulness.

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