Orphan Black is ending, but how far has human cloning come?

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Orphan Black, the Canadian science fiction show that revolves around human cloning, will end on Saturday, August 12th after five darkly funny, gory seasons. The show began with a former British street urchin, Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), watching as someone with her exact facial features commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. From there, the show unravels to be about large biotech corporations, conspiracies, and above all, morally questionable science.

Spoilers ahead for all of Orphan Black except the finale.

Science classes teach students early on that human experimentation is ethically wrong if the subjects don’t know they’re being experimented on, or exactly what the experiment entails. Orphan Black explores this taboo by giving us villains that love experimenting on unwilling or unwitting people. From installing a secret camera in a woman’s artificial eye to harvesting the eggs of an eight-year-old girl, the corporate forces on the show are unapologetically sinister and indifferent to basic scientific ethics. The show is both a celebration of science and a reminder that it’s frightening when used to the wrong ends.

With the end of Orphan Black imminent, we’re looking at the real world for our fix of real science straddling the world of science fiction. Since the show began airing in 2013, have we gotten any closer to the future of extreme body modifications and human cloning that Orphan Black has so often teased? I spoke with Paul Knoepfler, a biology professor at UC Davis, and John Quackenbush, professor of biostatistics and computational biology at Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to see how far away we are from some of the show’s most outrageous inventions.

GROWING A TAIL

Early in the show’s run, Olivier, a body-modification fan who’s one of the antagonists overseeing a human cloning project, shows off the pink tail he’s grown. Sarah is understandably disgusted. But such body modifications could exist, as humans are already naturally born with primordial tails, Knoepfler says. All you’d need to do is stop the pre-programmed cell death of those tail cells, maybe by giving a pregnant woman a drug, Knoepfler says. The most challenging part of getting a functional tail would be finding a way to extend the length of the spine, according to Quackenbush. And even if a tail was successfully constructed, there are more unknowns, says Knoepfler, like what part of the brain would control it, or whether the tail would trip you as you’re walking. Granted, that isn’t a problem if it’s this short:


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Olivier with the pink tail he obtained through body modification in season 1.

I SPY WITH MY BIONIC EYE

At the end of season 2, Rachel Duncan, a clone who’s grown up under the care of large corporations, is stabbed in the eye. She receives an artificial replacement, and after many months, she regains complete sight. Ultimately, though, she decides to tear out her eye, because she learns the man responsible for commissioning it also had a camera installed inside it to spy on her. This leads to a truly creepy cinematic moment where Rachel sneaks into the man’s office, looks down at his mysterious tablet, and discovers a live stream of what her eye sees: a screen within a screen within a screen, ad infinitum. “I watched you touch yourself in the shower where you think it’s clean,” the man says gleefully in a following episode.


Inception of the live stream.

Putting the show’s sinister ingenuity aside for a moment, Rachel’s bionic eye — spy-cam and all — may be possible, Knoepfler and Quackenbush say. Bionic eyes already exist, but the main challenge is connecting an artificial eye with the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. That nerve probably would have been damaged during Rachel’s initial injury. Creating a bionic eye poses an additional challenge, as the eye must mimic nature and be able to send and receive the right kinds of signals to be read by the brain, says Quackenbush. But if the eye and optic nerve could be reconnected, the eye could potentially be powered by a battery, and making a camera small enough to fit inside the eye is completely possible with today’s current technology. Then Wi-Fi and Bluetooth would give the eye live-streaming capabilities.

POISONOUS BOT IMPLANT

In the penultimate season, Sarah discovers she has a bot implanted inside her cheek, which acts as a tracking device and contains a poison her enemies can release into her bloodstream. Micro-tracking implantations already exist in our world: just take the microchips that are often implanted in dogs and cats, Quackenbush says. The tracking device part of the bot also seems plausible: there are devices today that can draw on nearby Bluetooth devices as a network, Quackenbush says. And even storing a toxin inside the bot isn’t just science fiction, given the steady infusion of insulin or other drugs that devices already offer humans today. The problem, however, is the bot’s power supply: it would have to be significant enough to potentially sustain the bot throughout a human lifetime — and no such batteries exist yet.


The bot being extracted from Sarah’s mouth in season 4, episode 6.

AND OF COURSE, CLONING

“We already have clones; they’re identical twins,” says Quackenbush. But there are other, less random methods for achieving human cloning. One way is how Dolly the sheep was cloned, by taking the part of the egg cell that contains genetic information and replacing it with a donor’s cell nucleus. The egg is then fertilized and grown into a clone. But using this method, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, on humans could be extremely unsafe, because the clone could have serious developmental disorders, Knoepfler says.

Quackenbush imagines another method to approach human cloning: reversing cell aging. Basically, adult stem cells could be reverted into their original state as stem cells, when they possessed the genetic potential to divide and become the heart, liver, skin, and other organs. “An embryo, in many ways, is the ultimate stem cell,” says Quackenbush. But this method hasn’t been tried before.

Orphan Black’s science consultant, Cosima Herter, believes that cloning humans is illegal in North America. “We’re not allowed to hear about it, because we’re not allowed to do it,” she wrote in a blog post for the show in 2013. This isn’t quite right — no federal laws, at least in the US, ban human cloning. The US Food and Drug Administration is the regulator that matters for research into cloning humans.

With the end of Orphan Black comes the end of a decently plausible science fiction series. It’s given us hints of what the future might have in store. It could even inspire the science to come. “I think [science fiction] is part of what got us into this business in the first place,” Quakenbush says of himself, and others in the science community, “You see the future and you want to try to invent it.”

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