Keanu Reeves in Replicas
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(Credit: Francisco Collazo / Replicas Holdings, LLC)  

Science Behind the Fiction: Where are all the clones?

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Jan 9, 2019, 2:26 PM EST (Updated)

Keanu Reeves hasn’t been entirely absent from the big screen of late, with the John Wick series seeing him avenging the death of his dog by murdering all kinds of folks in interesting ways, but it sort of feels like he has been. Reeves is at his best when he’s leading a science fiction film, from Bill & Ted to The Matrix, which is why the release of Replicas feels like the long-awaited return of an absent friend.

Watching the trailer feels like instantly winning at sci-fi bingo. It’s got clones, robots, and consciousness transfer. Any one of those concepts would have been enough to fuel an entire genre flick, but Replicas jams them all together into what is sure to be the most incredible mashup since Seth Brundle.

Reeves plays Will Foster, a scientist with his fingers in every bit of fringe science modernity has cooked up. He’s working to crack the code of the human brain and transfer it into robots. After an experimental failure, Foster leaves the lab for a vacation with his family, as one does when one's artificial life form goes mad from the torment of existing. However, a deadly car accident leaves Foster as the only survivor. Overwhelmed by grief, he does what perhaps any of us would do: Frankenstein his family back to life by way of his so-far failed technology. This, of course, does not go well. As Foster’s colleague Ed (Thomas Middleditch) tells him, there is a reason human cloning is banned.

The best science fiction allows us to explore our hopes and fears in the face of looming technological and societal change. Replicas may or may not be good sci-fi (that remains to be seen), but it is asking a lot of questions of which we may soon be in need of answers. The ethical questions surrounding the cloning of intact human beings are many and complicated. We’ve got some time to figure out the details, but it might be less time than you think.

Cloning has a storied history dating further back than most of us realize. While Dolly the sheep brought the technology into the spotlight, sparking much public conversation, scientists had been cloning animals for decades by that point. And nature has been doing it even longer.

Cloning is, in some respects, an attempt by science to reclaim a method of reproduction that was lost as we grew more complex creatures. Clones, by definition, are any organism produced asexually which is identical to its ancestor. In that respect, the Earth is practically littered with clones.

Countless species of bacteria, plants, and fungi reproduce this way, splitting their cells and making copies of themselves which are, for the most part, identical. While the lack of genetic diversity may seem to be an issue, some species have achieved incredible feats via this form of reproduction.

King’s Holly, a shrub indigenous to Southwest Tasmania, has some interesting characteristics. It grows up to eight meters in length and covers an area of just over a kilometer. This single population is the only known instance of the plant in the world and every single individual is a clone of the original plant, which lived at least 43,000 years ago. The plant itself is sterile; it flowers but bears no fruit. It’s gotten around this seemingly fatal flaw by reproducing vegetatively. When a branch from an existing plant falls off, it grows new roots and begins the process all over again.

Not to be outdone, the Quaking Aspen enjoys the best of both worlds, reproducing both sexually and asexually. Though, for the most part, the production of baby Quaking Aspens is a solitary affair. While the trees do produce seeds, they struggle to find mates, a symptom of their success at cloning.

These trees, common in North America, have impressive root systems which sprout, producing new trees that are connected via the roots and are genetically identical to the rest of the colony. As a result, all trees within a colony are the same sex and seeds are almost always unable to find a way to fertilize (calling our dating app "Tinder" just seems like a slap in the face). This hasn’t stopped the species from spreading like mad.

One population, lovingly called “Pando,” in the Fishlake National Forest in south-central Utah, is perhaps the heaviest and oldest living organism in the world. Sprouted from a single seed, Pando is biologically one organism made up of roughly 50,000 trees over 106 acres, and is estimated to be 80,000 years old.

While the common belief is that asexual reproduction is the domain of simpler lifeforms, when it comes to natural cloning, plants, fungi, and bacteria don’t have all the fun. Some complex animals are capable of spontaneous asexual reproduction, as well. According to reports, so-called “virgin births” are not as rare as we once thought.

Even among species which normally reproduce sexually, asexual reproduction is not unheard of in extreme scenarios. Snakes, sharks, some lizards, and even turkeys have been known to suddenly bear children without so much as dinner and a movie, through a process called parthenogenesis. This is believed to be an evolutionary loophole that allows some animal populations to survive in the event they become isolated. Suddenly, Ian Malcolm doesn’t seem so crazy.

While cloning is, in fact, a rather common method of reproduction in nature, something seems to have happened somewhere along the evolutionary path, leaving mammals in the dust. But since when has that ever stopped us?

Scientists have been toying with cloning technology since the late nineteenth century, when Hans Adolf Eduard Driesch rattled some developing sea urchin embryos, causing them to split into copies of themselves.

Hans Spemann took these experiments one step further in 1902 (give it up for Hans's), using a lasso made of baby hair to split salamander embryos, resulting in genetically identical adult salamanders. You can’t make this stuff up.

The first experiments with nuclear transfer happened in 1952, utilizing nuclei from embryonic cells and moving them into an enucleated cell to transfer genetic material from one organism to another. These experiments continued throughout the '80s and '90s, starting with frogs and eventually adding mammals.

Then Dolly happened in 1996. This was the first time cellular material was taken from an adult animal and used successfully to create a cloned individual.

While regarded as a massive scientific success in the media, Dolly wasn’t the solid win many believed it to be. Of 277 attempts, only one was successful. This isn't uncommon in research, but it wasn't as if they were cranking out copies. Additionally, Dolly died young, at roughly half the age of a natural-born sheep, of a virus. She also had arthritis and showed signs of premature aging. It’s unclear if this was a result of the cloning process, as four sister-clones, born of the same batch of cells as Dolly, showed none of the same problems.

Cloning of this type is achieved by taking the nucleus from the cell of an adult animal and transplanting it into an enucleated, unfertilized egg. The process is known as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. After the transplant, the egg is shocked into growth, either via electricity or, in the case of the Dolly clones, by giving it a little caffeine. The egg is then implanted in a surrogate mother to carry the embryo to term in the usual way.

Despite the process being more than two decades old, we still have shockingly low rates of success when cloning mammals. A 2016 report indicates that only one in 10 attempts in cattle resulted in a successful birth. Despite these roadblocks, some companies have taken to marketing the technology for commercial gain.

It is possible, provided you have the desire and the expendable income, to have your pets cloned so that you can be with them again after their gone. Though it is important to note that because an animal is genetically identical, offers no guarantee of a similar personality or temperament. It’s also worth noting that the service comes with a considerable price tag and you are paying for the attempt, with no promise of the desired result.

You might be surprised to learn that, at current, there is no federal law in the United States banning reproductive cloning. There are 15 states which ban the practice, with an additional three banning the use of public funds for research, but any research group in the U.S. with the desire to clone humans is, hypothetically, free to do so. So what gives?

The reality is, we’re just not there yet. The low success rate alone is enough to assuage any concerns you might have about human cloning in the near future. The sheer number of failed births required for every success is enough to turn the average person’s stomach, let alone the ethics board of any reasonable research organization.

Whether or not the distinction between human beings and non-human animals is justifiable, there is a psychological barrier that bumps up against subjecting humans to the same risks of which we allow animal subjects.

It’s likely that until such time as the technology advances to the point of continual success, the question of human reproductive cloning is moot. That day, however, may come sooner than we suspect, and it’s a good idea to have our ducks in a row before then.

Replicas hits theaters on Jan. 11, 2019.

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