Genetic Engineering on the Big Screen?
Guest Author, Maria Ramos
We’ve all seen clones created before our eyes in various cartoons, shows, and films. The very concept has captured the imagination of film directors and television producers because, well, why not? What is not intriguing about the mere possibility that we could clone animals, food, and even ourselves? Cloning lends itself well to new storytelling devices and plot wrinkles that audiences may find rewarding, as evidenced in multiple classics like Jurassic Park (1993) and Gattaca (1997). Stories featuring cloning have varied in quality, sophistication and scientific accuracy over the years, which will probably be the case going forward as well. One such example of a modern portrayal is Orphan Black, which has been revered for its plausible depictions of genetically engineering humans.
So what is cloning and how does one clone something? The process includes using an organism to produce a genetically identical second organism. The most common procedure for artificial cloning involves taking genetic material from the donor and placing it within an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. As this egg cell grows and multiplies according to normal embryological processes, a carbon copy of the donor organism develops.
Actual cloning goes back decades, with tadpoles first being cloned in 1952 and fish in 1963. In 1997, Dolly the Sheep made headlines for being the first mammal cloned using adult somatic donor cells rather than embryonic cells. In the following years, pigs, goats, cows and other mammals have been successfully cloned. Even though there have been improvements over the years, the process is still being developed and there is still much work to be done before cloning can be performed reliably and efficiently. No one has ever provably cloned a human despite the much-publicized announcement of such a clone in 2002 by the Raelian religious movement. However, that has not stopped television and film to speculate on the possibility of human clones.
Hollywood has explored the many of the possible implications of creating human clones in films such as Embryo (1976), The Darker Side of Terror (1979) and The Island (2005). In these and other various movies, the filmmakers have taken a dim and repetitive view of cloning. In many cases, clones are presented as evil even when the people from whom the clones were derived were good – a recurring theme throughout past and future films.
Having just premiered this summer, Jurassic World presents a theme park of dinosaurs that have been cloned from ancient DNA. It’s very unlikely that the story presented could come to pass because most DNA from the time of the dinosaurs has degraded to the point that it’s practically worthless for cloning purposes (though that doesn’t stop us from secretly hoping for a real-life dinosaur theme park). In fact, scientists would probably have better luck cloning animals that are much more recent, such as wooly mammoths who have died out as little as 10,000 years ago as opposed to dinosaurs who became extinct 65.5 million years ago. The DNA in mammoth remains has had less time to degrade and tends to be well-preserved in the arctic climates where it’s located. Maybe we’ll be able to have a “Pliocene Park” in the near future.
In the television series Orphan Black, human cloning is examined in a nuanced and realistic way that’s much more refined than what’s commonly found in movies or other entertainment media. Instead of being merely evil doppelgangers with nearly identical personalities, the clones’ values, lifestyles and characteristics are informed by their life experiences and environment while growing up, supporting the “nurture” aspect in the nature vs. nurture debate. This is the way that most experts believe actual human clones would behave, and by most accounts, Orphan Black gets other scientific details about cloning correct as well.
Back in the real world, cloning has a variety of potential uses. Animals could be cloned whenever one of them possesses an interesting trait that requires further study rather than waiting around for it to produce offspring. Certain diseases could also be studied in animal clones to develop cures and treatments for humans. Cloning could also contribute to food security in the coming years as hardy or especially productive strains of crops are mass-produced without having to wait for the results of normal plant breeding. As global climate continues to change, it will be useful to have a stockpile of different types of plant material that could be rapidly cloned and delivered wherever weather or soil conditions have made local plants ineffective. Genetically engineered and cloned bacteria can even be used to clean up oil spills by being designed to essentially eat the oil – something energy company Enmax has already experimented with in Edmonton’s oil sands, and which Transocean is using to clean up the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
As cloning techniques continue to improve, we’ll see a range of applications for them in health care, drug research, food production and many other fields. While much of the focus in fiction has been on the drawbacks or nightmare scenarios that cloning could lead to, the tone will probably change once people become more familiar with its positive uses. After all, when computers first hit the mainstream, there were many tales told about rouge machines taking over the world (as in War Games in 1983), but now hardly anybody finds such ideas credible. Similarly, cloning will probably just become a regular part of the everyday environment, losing much of its scariness and dramatic appeal in the process.