A few hundred feet inside a permafrost-encrusted mountain below the Arctic circle sits the seed bank that could be humanity's last hope during a global food crisis. This month, scientists suggested that this unassuming vault is the ideal space for preserving the world's data on DNA.
This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bunker on the Arctic island of Svalbard, which for the past seven years has amassed almost a half million seed samples from all over the world. The idea is to use the naturally freezing, isolated environment of the far north to preserve the world's plant life and agricultural diversity—which, of course, is under threat by climate change and disaster. If a food crisis occurs, the vault could provide the seeds that repopulate parts of the world.
Inside the Seed Vault. Image: AP Photo/John McConnico.
But it could potentially preserve much more than seeds. A study in the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie this month details the quest to find out how long data stored on DNA could be preserved, and also suggests the vault as the ideal storage location.
Writing Words on Artificial Fossils
Scientists have experimented with encoding data onto DNA for years, making progress in leaps and bounds (you can read an excellent in-depth description over on io9).
Because DNA can last for hundreds of thousands of years under the right conditions (think: fossils), it could do a much better job of storing our digital data than conventional methods like flash drives or CDs. It's also tiny: As New Scientist points out, a single gram of DNA can store "all the data held by Google, Facebook and every other major tech company." Still, questions remain about the process—like how long encoded DNA really can last.
That was the question the five-author team from Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology set to answer in the study published in Angewandte Chemie. They tested three different dry storage methods, using a sample of text (the Swiss federal charter from the 13th century and the 10th century Archimedes Palimpsest, together 83kb) and putting it through "accelerated aging" to see how it decayed. What they found was that the DNA's survival was dependent on two factors: Temperature and water concentration.
The storage method that kept water molecules away best involved encasing the DNA in silica—or glass. This novel process was developed by the team to mimic the way that fossilized bone preserved DNA, as the authors explain:
In ancient fossil bone, DNA has the greatest chance of survival if encapsulated within apatite/collagen structures and crystal aggregates, which protect the solid DNA from the environment and humidity—very similar to the encapsulation of DNA within the inorganic silica particles utilized here.
By encasing the DNA in glass, it gave it the best chance of lasting—just like fossilized bone does in nature. Another thing that helps? Cool temperatures. The study found that silica-encased DNA lasted longer as the temperatures dropped. For example, they calculate that DNA stored this way at 9.48 degrees Celcius (or about 49 degrees Fahrenheit) could last for 2000 years.
Then they extrapolated their findings even further. If this silica-encased DNA were stored in the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is kept at-18 Celcius or -0.4 Fahrenheit, it could last "for over 2 million years," they write.
The Cold, Dark Days of Data
So that bunker in the Arctic could be the key to preserving our digital world as we know it.
The authors aren't really suggesting we encrypt all your Facebook photos on DNA and put them next to rice seeds and varieties of nuts; besides, DNA storage is still way too expensive to be mainstream. But they are pointing to the Seed Vault as an example of our best bet for preserving life on Earth as we know it—through architecture.
Inside the Seed Vault. AP Photo/John McConnico
If the power goes out at the Seed Vault, for example, the temperature of the surrounding landscape will keep its samples cool. And even if climate change alters the environment on Svalbard, the vault is deep enough inside the mountainside that it will stay cool.
Crucially, it was also designed to withstand the changing tides—because it's built hundreds of feet above sea level, it will stay dry as the oceans rise.
Vault construction by APhoto/Global Crop Diversity Trust,Mari Tefre
Every other design detail was carefully considered for security, too—from reinforced doors to the entrance, designed specifically to be visible to the outside world. "We decided early on that there is no point in trying to hide this facility from the public," said the vault's project manager when the architectural plans were released. "Instead we will rely on its presence being well-known in the local community, so if the public sees something suspicious, they will react to it."
So it's isolated from the rest of the world, but easy to find in the vast white landscape. It's naturally cool, and dry, and blast-proof to the core. It's strange to imagine that the world's crop diversity depends on a bunker with the footprint roughly the size of four average American homes, wedged into a mountainside in the far north.
But as the Angewandte Chemie study reveals, Svalbard is becoming an architectural precedent for scientists and engineers from a huge array of fields.
In the future, we might see more bunkers mimic it to preserve other aspects of life as we know it—a string of glowing concrete bunkers dotting the Arctic circle like some kind of 21st century DEW Line.
Check out the full study, available to rent from Angewandte Chemie, or read New Scientist's synopsis here.