Thierry Work and a team of wildlife disease researchers are manufacturing reptile skin in the hopes of saving endangered turtles. A virus, ChHV5, has been infecting endangered green sea turtles, causing tumors to grown on the their skin and inside their bodies. The infection eventually weakens the immune system, and leads to death.

Studying this virus proved incredibly difficult. Traditional methods of growing viruses to study ChHV5 in the lab failed. Work’s team noticed that the virus only seemed to grow in skin cells, but reptile skin had never been grown in a lab before. In order to engineer their own turtle skin, the researchers implanted both tumor and healthy skin cells in layers of collagen.

With the first lab-grown turtle skin, Works’ team was finally able to study ChHV5. Researchers observed that the virus forms interesting sun-shaped patterns as it replicates. This information allowed them to begin developing a blood test to identify turtles suffering from the early phases of the infection.

Our expert, Madeleine Jennewein of Harvard University’s virology department, warns that the work is far from complete. There is still a great deal of virology research that is needed to understand how this virus works to cause illness.  She also points out that, despite some scaremongering popular press headlines, the skin used to grow the virus will not result in a mutant turtle scenario.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Madeleine Jennewein of the Harvard Virology Department

Managing Correspondent: Emily Kerr

Media Coverage: First, lab-grown reptile skin — next, mutant ninja turtles?

Original Publication: In-vitro replication of Chelonid herpesvirus 5 in organotypic skin cultures from Hawaiian green turtles (Chelonia mydas)

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