An Exploration of the Scientific Accuracy on Orphan Black

Science fiction, even at its most absurdly whimsical and farfetched, is never easy to produce.

Some stories contain fictional elements so preposterous that all scientific credulity is lost. Others make the opposite mistake, and fill the pages with dense, detailed information that almost fully removes the “entertainment” factor altogether.  Don’t be mistaken, balancing the two – while making an original artistic statement – is one of the most difficult tasks any author can take on.

It’s for this reason that new BBC America show Orphan Black stands outs as a work of well-produced television. The show manages to provide a reasonable explaination of the science behind genetic engineering and human cloning while also keeping viewers enthralled.

Orphan Black’s premise: once the main character finds out that she is one of an innumerable amount of clones throughout the world, she must face the consequences that come with living as the “test subject” many perceive her to be.

While most “clone” stories follow a similar narrative, and involve a fully grown subject being created in a lab, this is not that case in Orphan Black. Each clone was born from a different surrogate mother and has led different lives in different places – predictably growing up as completely different people. Sarah, the lead, is a con artist who’s a little rough around the edges. Cosima is a scientist and graduate student in Experimental Evolutionary Development Biology. Alison is a suburbanite soccer mom who is a little too much of a perfectionist. Lastly, Helena displays qualities of a psychopath (but with a heart of gold). Though all of the clones share the same basic biology and look somewhat the same, they are not identical. The ways they were nurtured, as well as the ways their cells were modified when they were first created, played a large part in shaping who they are. If human clones had already been created in real life, this “nature vs. nurture” concept would play a huge part in determining their developmental path, according to the scientific consultant for the show, Cosima Herter.

Besides being the namesake and inspiration for the clone Cosima Niehaus, Cosima Herter is a PhD student in the History and Philosophy of Biology track of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program at the University of Minnesota. She has worked with the writers of Orphan Black to keep the science as close to realistic as possible, while also presenting important moral and legal questions that are often brought up in conversations on the issue. Some examples of these questions include: Does a corporation like the Dyad Institute have the right to create the clones in the first place? Do they have legal ownership of the clones because they created them? Can a corporation own human beings at all? Do the clones even count as “human” considering their origins?

Human clones do not currently exist in the world, but animal clones have been around since the late 1970s, when the first genetically identical mice were born. Since then, scientists have created clones of cows, chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits, and, most famously, sheep. Several cloning processes have been used, including reproductive cloning where a somatic cell (a cell that includes two sets of chromosomes) is taken from the donor and the DNA is placed in an egg cell that has had its original nucleus (containing DNA) removed. The first cloned animals were created by splitting embryos and placing the resulting embryos into surrogate mothers. Dolly the sheep, one of the most famous animal clones, was the first created using a somatic cell.

The clones of Orphan Black were created utilizing this somatic cell nuclear transfer method. The DNA was taken from mature donor cells and placed in eggs, which were then placed in different surrogate mothers. They were all born from different surrogates except for Sarah and Helena, who are actually “mirror-twins” born from an egg that split after it was implanted and created two clones with asymmetrical characteristics. As it is revealed in the show, Sarah and Helena have opposite dominant hands as well as internal organ placement. This is not the only genetic abnormality that has appeared in the clones either. Several of them have severe health issues, like Cosima, something that happens frequently in real cloned animals (many age prematurely or die early due to health complications) and all of them except for Sarah and Helena are infertile. However, there is a possibility that the Dyad Institute had intentionally made them infertile and was not a natural occurrence of the cloning process.

For the most part, the science behind the clones in Orphan Black is fairly realistic when compared to what actually occurs in during the real cloning process. Aside from the clones having the same fingerprints – which wouldn’t happen even if they were identical twins like Sarah and Helena – the show is basically by the book. But as we all know, human clones do not currently exist due in part to the complexities of cloning primates and the moral implications behind doing so. The Dyad Institute in the show has coded the DNA of their clones with what is essentially a “property belongs to” tag, claiming ownership of them because they ‘made’ them. But can a company or a person have the right to own another human being? Even if they are born from scientific methods instead of through natural reproductive methods, are they not still a real life person? Legally, we cannot own other people. But would these clones be seen as truly human in the eyes of society and the law?

Clearly, it’s a complicated issue, with moral, scientific, and even spiritual implications. In Orphan Black, the clones see themselves as individuals. They were raised separately and therefore have their own experiences and individual memories that shaped them into becoming their own people. Just because Dyad believes they own them, and religious extremist organizations such as the Proletheans believe they should be destroyed because they are synthetic, that doesn’t make them any less ‘human’ unto themselves. As the show progresses they’ll have to continue the fight to be recognized as deserving of starting their own lives and families.

The third season of Orphan Black is coming to a close and has been renewed for a fourth season, set to air sometime next year. Until then, you can see what you’ve missed on current and previous seasons by streaming them on Google Play and iTunes, as well as on demand with Comcast Xfinity or DirectStarTV. It’s worth your while to pay close attention the more “scientific” facets of this show, as they will likely direct where the show goes from here. Hopefully the fourth season will live up to previous ones, and introduce more viewers to an entertaining synthesis of science, futurism and good old fashioned storytelling. May the clones reign victorious!

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Aspiring writer Maria Karen is interested in horror movies, comic books, and tea. Her hobbies include comic book conventions and finding hole-in-the-wall shops around the city. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her two aquatic turtles, Roy and Franklin.

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