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Tatiana Maslany plays about a dozen characters, including Cosima Niehaus (left) and Sarah Manning, in Orphan Black. Photo by John Medland/©BBC-America/Courtesy: Everett Collection/The Canadian Press

Carbon copies

As scientists tinker with the human genome, TV series Orphan Black reveals the duplicitous side of cloning

By Elena Gritzan


They say that running into your doppelgänger is an omen of bad luck. But for Sarah Manning, it seems like a blessing. She steps off a train, hoping to find and reunite with her estranged daughter, when she comes face-to-face with a woman who could be her twin. The stranger walks off the platform and into the path of the next train, and Sarah takes the opportunity to make a new start. She grabs the woman’s abandoned purse and breaks into her apartment, becoming Beth Childs — adopting her clothes, mannerisms and accent — with the goal of emptying the dead woman’s bank accounts. But first, she learns something earth-shattering about herself.

Beth wasn’t her twin. They’re clones, illegally created as part of a secret genetic experiment. And now that Sarah knows the truth, she has to fight for control of her own body and life against the shadowy organization behind the research. Orphan Black is a new kind of science fiction that explores the growing pains of scientific advancement — the early days of experimentation when hopes are high, and the potential human cost is higher.

Science fiction has always been about new discoveries and how they might shape the world and ourselves. Traditionally, the genre has tried to foretell the future, when everything is different and strange technology is commonplace. Classic examples, like 1997’s Gattaca, take “what if” to the extreme. What if someday we could edit the genes of human embryos, creating designer offspring immune to diseases and destined for physical and intellectual success? The result is a new kind of class system, with stable jobs and social acceptance available only to those with perfectly edited DNA. It’s a world that makes Vincent (Ethan Hawke) — an average, naturally born man with dreams of becoming an astronaut — desperate. Desperate enough to take on a biologically engineered man’s identity, using samples of his blood under fake fingertips to get past the genetic screen that gets him into work each morning.

When the film came out, the Human Genome Project was well underway. The ambitious research created a map of human DNA, fuelling investigations into more than 1,800 genes that cause diseases. Gattaca fed into a sense of public unease: what if insurance providers or employers could get a copy of everyone’s genetic fingerprint? Would they discriminate against the biologically unlucky?

Orphan Black is set against an entirely new reality: genetic editing is not only possible, but actually happening in labs around the world.

A technique called CRISPR-Cas9 emerged in 2012. Cheap and easy to learn, it uses a piece of RNA, the single-stranded cousin of a DNA double helix, to direct an enzyme to a specific gene. The enzyme cuts the DNA, turning the gene off. But if a new template is introduced at the same time, something can happen that we used to only dream about: scientists can edit a specific gene, making any change that they want. The technique has already been used to create tumours in animals for cancer research and to make changes in isolated human cells. Some labs have already begun experimenting on human embryos.

Sarah Manning and her “sisters” (all played brilliantly by Canadian Tatiana Maslany) are the victims of what might happen if human testing of new technology is driven underground, away from the eyes of research ethics boards. They’re constantly watched, controlled and subjected to medical tests disguised as dreams in the middle of the night. With echoes of CRISPR-Cas9, this year’s fourth season of Orphan Black introduces two new futuristic technologies: the manipulation of human embryos and worm-like implants that can turn off genes. The consequences, though unintended, are devastating. Hopeful mothers give birth to deformed infants, and implant hosts die as the synthetic worm is removed.

And Again, a new novel by Jessica Chiarella, explores similar territory. Hannah, Linda, David and Connie are given the chance to escape their terminally ill bodies by having their memories implanted into the brains of their clones. They’re monitored by a group of doctors hoping to win FDA approval for the procedure, but no one foresaw the side effects: physical changes like losing the ability to paint or dream, and the social challenges of adapting to a new body.

Although they are oblivious to all the implications, the patients in And Again at least consent to the experimental procedure. What if you were experimented on without your consent?

That’s the idea at the heart of Limetown, a fictional, serialized podcast masquerading as public radio investigative journalism. The eponymous small town was the site of a mysterious brain research facility, until everyone living there suddenly disappeared. Narrator Lia Haddock discovers that all of the townsfolk — researchers, spouses, even the movie theatre attendants — were unknowingly part of an experiment gone wrong. “But how successful was it?” Lia asks when she learns about the research. “To what end? And — maybe most significantly, but easiest to disregard in matters of science — why? I need to know. We need to know.”

In Orphan Black, the tension between progress and its human cost explodes when clone Cosima Niehaus finally meets the woman who created her. She doesn’t accept the justification that experimentation can “unlock the mysteries of the human genome.” “These are human beings that you’re tinkering with. Trial and error without consent,” Cosima says, voice shaking. “I never gave permission for any of this!” As science rockets forward, it’s an important warning to keep in mind: in learning how to transform ourselves, there’s a danger we may lose our humanity. 


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

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