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Everything an Orphan Black fan needs to know about cloning (pictures)

The sci-fi TV hit -- featuring five, five, five characters in one! -- has officially been greenlit for a fourth season. But how much of it is based on real science?

Leslie Gornstein
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Send in the clones

It's official: The BBC sci-fi hit Orphan Black is coming back for a fourth season. Get ready for more clones on top of the many we already know, including Sarah, Helena, Alison and Cosima.

The showrunners are already promising new twists -- as if trans clones and a revolving door of psychopaths haven't been enough.

It's outrageous fiction, of course. But when it comes to the science of cloning, the show is closer to fact than you might think.

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Like Orphan Black's Project Leda, we're already cloning all over the place

At least, when it comes to animals. Everyone knows about Dolly, the very real cloned sheep born in 1996 to Scottish scientists. But since then, clones of other animals have emerged, including...

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Genome advancement

...pigs, deer, horses and bulls.

A la the creepy Prolethean cult in Orphan Black, we're also sequencing the heck out of all kinds of genomes for the purposes of disease fighting and, yes, cloning.

This thoroughbred, Twilight, is a mare from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Researchers supported by National Human Genome Research Institute sequenced an equine genome using a small sample of blood from the horse.

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Scientists already have created proto-Sarahs

Has mankind successfully cloned itself? By all accounts, we have yet to produce a fully gestated cloned human baby.

But we have created proto-people. In 1998, workers at Advanced Cell Technology took a nucleus from a man’s leg and inserted it into the ovum of a cow. The resulting embryo was destroyed after 12 days.

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5 of 10 Matthew Pace/Getty Images

We've done it more than once

A decade later, scientists were at it again. This time, the company was Stemagen, and the five embryos they created reached a more mature stage before they were destroyed.

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We could go even further...if we wanted to

Unlike Canada, parts of Australia, Colombia, Romania, and Serbia, the United States has no federal law on the books specifically prohibiting human cloning. If scientists wanted to bring one of those aforementioned embryos to term, there would be no all-encompassing law that could completely stop them...though many individual states do ban human cloning.

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But it would risk some serious Cosimas

The most commonly referenced type of cloning -- implanting a somatic cell nucleus into a prepared egg -- is very risky. Even if implantation goes fine, the subsequent development of the clone is not always guaranteed. Dolly sprang from the 277th attempt at sheep cloning, but she died soon after reaching age six, about half the life expectancy of a typical sheep.

Veterinarians gave Dolly a lethal injection in 2003 after they discovered signs of progressive lung disease.

Her story is echoed in the health problems of the chronically ill Orphan Black character Cosima.

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8 of 10 Texas A&M University/Getty Images

Like Sarah, some clones have given birth...

Except they're not people either. This kitten, CC, born in 2001 at Texas A&M University, grew up to bear four kittens of her own. Three of them were born alive.

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But like Helena, some clones actually look very, very different

When you think clones, you think look-alikes, right? Wrong. CC's biological mother, Rainbow, had a fur pattern different from CC. The reason: a natural genetic reprogramming that happens between cell fertilization and implantation.

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And like Alison, clone personalities can be very, very, VERY different

Rainbow was different from CC in another way, too: Her personality. CC is described as curious and playful, while Rainbow, who passed away several years ago, was more reserved. No word on which cat looked better in purple.

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