By growing reptile skin in the lab, scientists can help fight a disease that devastates an endangered species of sea turtle.

“It is the most important infectious disease affecting these turtles globally and we have good evidence that, when the severity of the tumors reach a certain stage of severity, animals become immunosuppressed, waste away, and die,” Theirry Work, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author of the study, told Digital Trends.

After noticing that the virus seemed to grow only in skin cells, he said, “we opted to have a go at trying to re-create the 3D structure of turtle skin in the lab to see if that would allow the virus to replicate and — lo — it worked.”

To reconstruct the skin’s complex 3D structure, the researchers used both tumor cells and normal skin cells.

While watching the virus develop, they saw it replicate in never-before-seen detail, including strange sun-shaped centers.

For one thing, turtle skin is usually coated in layers of algae, bacteria, and barnacles that make cultured growth — which needs to be sterile — difficult.

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