Reptile Skin Grown in Lab Could Help Save Endangered Turtles

Public Domain. Claire Fackler/NOAA

Scientists have engineered the skin of a non-mammal in a laboratory for the first time.

The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a majestic creature that can be found in tropical waters around the world. Unfortunately, the commercial harvest of these turtles and of their eggs has forced the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify the species as endangered. Pollution, loss of nesting habitats, bycatch, and disease also pose enormous threats to the survival of green sea turtles.

One of the most severe diseases to affect green turtles is fibropapillomatosis (FP), which causes cauliflower-shaped tumors to form on the turtles’ eyes, mouths, and skin. FP is often fatal as it harms turtles’ immune systems and can lead to additional infections and even internal tumors. The disease especially affects turtles in Brazil, Hawaii, and Florida. From 1980 to 2005, over one fifth of dead and debilitated green turtles found in Florida had FP tumors.

Turtle with tumors

Peter Bennett & Ursula Keuper-Bennett/CC BY 3.0

Fortunately, an international group of scientists has made a breakthrough in FP research. According to a new U.S. Geological Survey study, the group of scientists successfully engineered green sea turtle skin in a laboratory, allowing them to grow a virus called chelonid herpesvirus 5 (ChHV5) that causes tumors in sea turtles and is associated with FP. The new study marks the first time in history that researchers successfully grew the skin of a non-mammal in a laboratory.

“Fibropapillomatosis is the most common infectious disease affecting endangered green turtles,” explained Thierry Work, the lead author of the study. “Our findings provide a significant advancement in studying FP, and may eventually help scientists better understand other herpes virus-induced tumor diseases, including those of humans.”

The researchers built a detailed, three-dimensional replica of a turtle's skin using cells from tumors as well as from healthy skin, allowing them to grow ChHV5 and to observe how the virus develops in green sea turtles. Prior to the study, scientists had been unable to grow ChHV5 in the lab, hindering their understanding of how the virus causes tumors. Now, with the help of the engineered turtle skin, researchers have a better understanding of how ChHV5 affects turtles, which could lead to better treatments for turtles affected by FP. Furthermore, with the newfound ability to replicate reptile skin, other scientists studying viruses in reptiles may see advancements in their research.

“Examining viruses within the complex three-dimensional structure of engineered skin is exciting,” Work said. “Virus replication in such a system is likely much closer to reality than traditional laboratory techniques. This method could be a powerful tool for answering broader questions about virus-induced tumors in reptiles and herpes virus replication in general.”