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Orphan Black Science Recap: “The Collapse of Nature”

Beth (TATIANA MASLANY)

Beth (TATIANA MASLANY)

Welcome to our Orphan Black science recaps, where Casey, a graduate student in genetics and developmental biology, and Nina, a professional science communicator, examine the science in each episode of OB and talk you through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.

If you haven’t watched the latest episode of Orphan Black, be forewarned: there will be spoilers. There will also be crazy science.

Casey: This episode felt like a return home after a long journey. We finally got a look back at the life of Beth Childs in the weeks leading up to her fateful night on the train platform. After three seasons of knowing Beth only through Sarah’s fever dreams and through what other clones have mentioned in passing, we get to spend an entire episode following Beth through her suffering, her secret friendship with new clone M.K., and the establishment of Clone Club. We are also with Beth when she visits Club Neolution and Aldous Leekie for the first time and uncover some of the games Neolution were playing even before Sarah entered the story and before Cosima got her own lab.

Nina: Also, the Neolution worm is back.

We mentioned the worm in our season three finale science recap, where it made its first appearance crawling out of Dr. Nealon’s mouth (ew.) [Sidenote: we also discussed Neolution philosophy and biohacking—even fingertip magnets!—which featured heavily in the season four premiere.] Trina, the girl at Club Neolution who tipped Beth on her boyfriend’s worm implant (again, ew.) explained that the implant was said to be for a biometrics study. Biometrics involve measuring physical and physiological characteristics (think fingerprints and DNA, but also facial recognition, retinal scans—that sort of thing). That would make sense if the implant were some sort of hardware that could collect data, but a worm? Not likely.

We have some of our own theories about the Neolution worm.

WORM THEORY #1: Weird Experimental Gene Therapy

Nina: This episode revisited a lot of familiar faces (Raj! Ramon! …Olivier…) but it also introduced us to a couple of important new players. One of these was Evie Cho, who right off the get-go makes it clear that she’s linked to the “cheek choppers” that hacker clone M.K. finds in the woods. Here’s what we know about Evie so far: she’s pro-eugenics, she’s doing ethically dubious research, and she was born with a genetic disorder that she cured herself with gene therapy.

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Gene therapy involves treating diseases by introducing new genetic material into the affected cells to correct the disease-causing gene. To get the genetic material into the cells, a carrier called a vector is needed. The vector has to be something that can survive the person’s immune system and pass through the cells’ membrane and get to the cell nucleus where DNA is stored. Usually the vector is an altered virus, but it could very well be a parasitic worm. Why not?

At least one gene therapy study has looked to worms: Schistosoma mansoni, commonly known as a bloodfluke, a worm that is responsible for a deadly parasitic disease (schistosomiasis). The worm’s eggs release a protein called IPSE, which can easily pass into cells and bind to that cells DNA. Even better, these proteins can be used to transport much larger proteins with it.

But if it’s the protein that’s important, why use worms at all? Well, if you think about it, they’re experts at surviving inside the human body. Schistosoma can survive for ten years or more inside the human body because it’s adapted ways of .

Other parasitic worms, called helminths, have been used to treat autoimmune disorders like allergies, asthma, IBD and Crohn’s disease, for the same reason. They trigger the immune system, but in a way prevents a hyperactive response and reduces inflammation, leading to less severe symptoms. Treatment options aren’t great: to get the benefits you have to be infected by the worms. Basically, you can swallow them or let them crawl through your skin (kinda makes having a worm egg implanted while you’re under anaesthetic seem ideal).

WORM THEORY #2: Parasitic Mind Control

Casey: Another theory about the Neolution worms that popped into our minds was that they are acting as some sort of parasitic mind control. Neolution could be infecting people with the worms, and then controlling them to make some sort of Neolution army that can do their bidding.

Now I know this sounds like completely out-of-this-world science fiction, but there are actually examples of parasites in nature that can control the behaviors of their hosts. There is a wasp known as Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga that lays eggs on the abdomens of orb spiders, and when these eggs become larva, they can inject a chemical into the spider, forcing them to create a unique web-like structure to support the wasp’s cocoon, which they will make once they have eaten the spider. Pretty morbid stuff.

There is also a species of ocean-dwelling fluke, Euhaplorchis californiensis, that will attach to the gills of a killfish, make its way to their brains, and then control the behavior of the fish via secretion of specific chemicals, causing the fish to jump and jerk until it is caught by a waterbird and the fluke can make its way to the bird’s gut, where it reproduces.

Nina: There may be similar parasites that can alter human behaviour. It was long suspected that a microbe found in infected mice (and in the poop of cats who have ingested infected mice) called Toxoplasma gondii could infect humans and alter their behaviour by leading to greater risk-taking and decreased impulse control. While Toxoplasma infections can be dangerous (FYI this is why it is recommended that pregnant women should not scoop kitty litter), recent research has suggested that Toxoplasma’s mind-control powers have been greatly exaggerated.

Casey: Nature has a handful of examples of mind control parasites, so it’s not completely out of the question that Neolution would utilize this method to take over their minions.

Casey: In summary, the season 4 premiere was quite a wild ride of emotions, old friends, new unknowns, and creepy surgeries. And this definitely isn’t the last we will be seeing of the Neolution worms. Let’s only hope Clone Club can get to the bottom of this before Neolution starts cutting out the cheeks of our beloved Leda clones.

Casey Griffin is a graduate student in genetics and developmental biology. She dissects mouse hearts, does lots of PCRs, and nerds (and cries and screams) about Orphan Black. You can check out her OB Science Time Tumblr posts here.

Nina Nesseth is a professional science communicator, emerging playwright, and serial tea-drinker. She’s happiest when science-ing at people (yes, that’s “science” as a verb) and watches way too many movies (but she lacks stamina and falls asleep if she tries to watch two in a row). You can find her on Twitter@cestmabiologie.

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