Maud Newton | Longreads | June 2015 | 24 minutes (5,889 words)
BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging. Read more…
His best friend’s mom laughed when Lanza told her he wanted to become a doctor. “You’d probably make a very good carpenter,” she said. When Lanza announced his plan for the school science fair—he would alter a chicken’s genetics and turn it from white to black—his classmates giggled and his teacher said it was impossible. It’s a word he’ll hear many times.
Down in the basement, wedged between the furnace and clothes dryer, a homemade Styrofoam incubator on the table in front of him, he’s decided the chicken experiment is challenging, but not impossible. He talked his way into syringes and penicillin at local hospitals and borrowed tabletop centrifuges from a guy across town who works for the state health agency. His neighbor drove him to local farms so he could gather eggs from white chickens and black ones. Now he’s been working in the furnace room for months, trying to introduce pigmented genes into white embryos while his mom stands in the kitchen telling her friends that “Robby is downstairs trying to hatch chicken eggs.” Not quite, Mom, he thinks.
Eventually several white chicks will emerge from their eggs with brown spots. Lanza will drop by Harvard Medical School to get help repeating the results, and in a scene straight out of the movies, he’ll mistake the founder of Harvard’s neurobiology department for a janitor. Stephen Kuffler, “the father of modern neuroscience,” won’t mind a bit. He’ll introduce Lanza to a graduate student who will later become director of Harvard’s Center for Brain Science, and who will spend hours chatting with the eager teen about his chicken project.