I didn’t know that science fiction series Orphan Black actually had a real Cosima: Cosima Herter, science consultant. After reading this interview and finishing season 5, I realised that there is also a new book I needed to read: The science of Orphan Black: The official companion by PhD candidate in development, stem cells and regenerative medicine Casey Griffin and science communicator Nina Nesseth with a foreword by Cosima Hertner.
(Warning: This post contains serious spoilers for Orphan Black, and a conceptual spoiler for GATTACA.)
One thing about science fiction struck me when I was watching the last episodes of Orphan Black: Sometimes it makes a lot more sense if we don’t believe everything the fictional scientists tell us. Like real scientists, they may be wrong, or they may be exaggerating. The genetically segregated future of GATTACA becomes no less chilling when you realise that the silly high predictive accuracies claimed are likely just propaganda from a oppressive society. And as you realise that the dying P.T. Westmorland is an imposter, you can break your suspension of disbelief about LIN28A as a fountain of youth gene … Of course, genetics is a little more complicated than that, and he is just another rich dude who wants science to make him live forever.
However, it wouldn’t be Orphan Black if there weren’t a basis in reality: there are several single gene mutations in model animals (e.g. Kenyon & al 1993) that can make them live a lot longer than normal, and LIN28A is involved in ageing (reviewed by Jun-Hao & al 2016). It’s not out of the question that an engineered single gene disruption that substantially increases longevity in humans could be possible. Not practical, and not necessarily without unpleasant side effects, but not out of the question.
Orphan Black was part slightly scary adventure, part festival of ideas about science and society, part character-driven web of relationships, and part, sadly, bricolage of clichés. I found when watching season five that I’d forgotten most of the plots of seasons two through four, and I will probably never make the effort to sit through them again. The first and last seasons make up for it, though.
The series seems to have been set on squeezing as many different biological concepts as possible in there, so the book has to try to do the same. It has not just clones and transgenes, but also gene therapy, stem cells, prion disease, telomeres, dopamine, ancient DNA, stem cells in cosmetics and so on. Two chapters try valiantly to make sense of the clone disease and the cure. It shows that the authors have encyclopedic knowledge of life science, with a special interest in development and stem cells.
But I think they slightly oversell how accurate the show is. Like when Cosima tells Scott to ”run a PCR on these samples, see if there are any genetic markers” and ”can you sequence for cytochrome c?”, and Scott replies ”the barcode gene? that’s the one we use for species differentiation” … That’s what screen science is like. The right words, but not always in the right order.
Cosima and Scott sciencing at university, before everything went pear-shaped. One of the good thing about Orphan Black was the scientist characters. There was a ton of them! The good ones, geniuses with sparse resources and self experimentation, the evil ones, well funded and deeply unethical, and Delphine. This scene is an exception in that it plays the cringe-inducing nerd angle. Cosima and Scott grew after than this.
There are some scientific oddities. They must be impossible to avoid. For example, the section on epigenetics treats it as a completely new field, sort of missing the history of the subfield. DNA methylation research was going on already in the 1970s (Gitschier 2009). Genomic imprinting, arguably the only solid example of transgenerational epigenetic effects in humans, and X inactivation were both being discovered during 70s and 80s (reviewed by Ferguson-Smith 2011). The book also makes a hash of genome sequencing, which is a shame but understandable. It would have taken a lot of effort to disentangle how sequencing worked when the fictional clone experiment started and how it got to how it works in season five, when Cosima runs Nanopore sequencing.
The idea of human cloning is evocative. Orphan Black flipped it on its head by making the main clone characters strikingly different. It also cleverly acknowledged that human cloning is a somewhat dated 20th century idea, and that the cutting edge of life science has moved on. But I wish the book had been harder on the premise of the clone experiment:
By cloning the human genome and fostering a set of experimental subjects from birth, the scientists behind the project would gain many insights into the inner workings of the human body, from the relay of genetic code into observable traits (called phenotypes), to the viability of manipulated DNA as a potential therapeutic tool, to the effects of environmental factors on genetics. It’s a scientifically beautiful setup to learn myriad things about ourselves as humans, and the doctors at Dyad were quick to jump at that opportunity. (Chapter 1)
This is the very problem. Of course, sometimes ethically atrocious fictional science would, in principle, generate useful knowledge. But when when fictional science is near useless, let’s not pretend that it would produce a lot of valuable knowledge. When it comes to genetics and complex traits like human health, small sample studies of this kind (even if it was using clones) would be utterly useless. Worse than useless, they would likely be biased and misleading.
Researchers still float the idea of a ”baseline”, though, but in the form of a cell line, where it makes more sense. See the the (Human) Genome Project-write (Boeke & al 2016), suggesting the construction of an ideal baseline cell line for understanding human genome function:
Additional pilot projects being considered include … developing a homozygous reference genome bearing the most common pan-human allele (or allele ancestral to a given human population) at each position to develop cells powered by ”baseline” human genomes. Comparison with this baseline will aid in dissecting complex phenotypes, such as disease susceptibility.
In the end, the most important part of science in science fiction isn’t to be a factually correct, nor to be a coherent prediction about the future. If Orphan Black has raised interest in science, and I’m sure it has, that is great. And if it has stimulated discussions about the relationship between biological science, culture and ethics, that is even better.
The timeline of when relevant scientific discoveries happened in the real world and in Orphan Black is great. The book has a partial bibliography. The ”Clone Club Q&A” boxes range from silly fun to great open questions.
Orphan Black was probably the best genetics TV show around, and this book is a wonderful companion piece.
Plaque at the Roslin Institute to the sheep that haunts Orphan Black. ”Baa.”
Boeke, JD et al (2016) The genome project-write. Science.
Ferguson-Smith, AC (2011) Genomic imprinting: the emergence of an epigenetic paradigm. Nature reviews Genetics.
Gitschier, J. (2009). On the track of DNA methylation: An interview with Adrian Bird. PLOS Genetics.
Jun-Hao, E. T., Gupta, R. R., & Shyh-Chang, N. (2016). Lin28 and let-7 in the Metabolic Physiology of Aging. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.
Kenyon, C., Chang, J., Gensch, E., Rudner, A., & Tabtiang, R. (1993). A C. elegans mutant that lives twice as long as wild type. Nature, 366(6454), 461-464.