Lab-grown skin may be key to helping sea turtles afflicted with ugly herpes tumors

A tumor on a turtle is measured at the turtle hospital in Marathon.
A tumor on a turtle is measured at the turtle hospital in Marathon. Herald File

Those grisly tumors that sprout from Florida’s sea turtles might have finally found their match: lab produced turtle skin.

In a study published this week in the Journal of Virology, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Hawaii announced they have for the first time reconstructed reptile skin from a green turtle. Producing the skin has allowed them to get a better look at how the herpes-caused tumors reproduce in turtles, which could lead to a better understanding of how the virus afflicts humans.

“This method could be a powerful tool for answering broader questions about virus-induced tumors in reptiles and herpes virus replication in general,” lead author and USGS scientist Thierry Work said in a statement.


The herpes virus, called Fibropapillomatosis, is a common ailment in green turtles and on the rise. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon estimates that half the green turtles it treats have tumors, while statewide the afflicted number is about 20 percent. The virus itself is not deadly, but the tumors can routinely lead to death by inhibiting feeding and swimming.

Green sea turtles were nearly hunted to extinction and had dropped to just a few breeding populations in Florida when they were added to the endangered species list in the 1970s. Last year, Florida’s turtles were reclassified as threatened, with nesting females now at about 2,250.

While the virus has popped up in all seven species of sea turtles, it hit green turtles, which feed on seagrass beds close to shore, the hardest. That led some researchers to link the virus to pollution.

While it was first documented more than two decades ago, Work said that up until now scientists were never able to grow the virus in a lab, which hampered efforts to understand it.

The reproduced turtle skin for the first time allowed them to plant the virus and observe it on a three-dimensional scale. That 3D look revealed ways the virus morphs and reproduces over time, and the structure of the cells as they change. That, in turn, could lead to blood tests to detect the virus, he said.

Currently, the only way to treat the tumors is to operate and surgically remove them. That can be tricky since the cauliflower-like tumors often grow near soft tissue like eyes and mouths. It also requires tracking down the patient.

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