Doomsday Biotech Gene Bank – a redundant server farm protecting biodiversity

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Sometimes technology works against nature. Other times it works for it. Now, finally, technology is being used to protect the earth. The Doomsday gene bank in Norway is using modern technology that functions like a back-up server for the world’s biodiversity cache. The server-like Svalbard Seed Vault was recently given an infusion of seeds, and cash, that has widely broadened its scope.

A much-needed infusion that is helping protect many of the gene and seed backups destroyed by the Afghan and Iraq wars, more recently the fire-destroyed Philippines facility and the suspected issues with the gene bank in Syria. The vault’s architect, American Cary Fowler, welcomed the 25,000+ new seed samples with open arms, before he cranked up the cold (to a frigid -18°C) and sealed the door of the vault. If there was ever an eco ranger-based video game, the epic battle led by character Cary would surely by fought at the Svalbard Vault.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault (source : Wikipedia)

The technology behind the vault is nothing short of a modern technological wonder, using advanced software- and hardware-based security measures like the two airlocks that seal off the end of the 160-meter tunnel that buries the facility deep into Norway’s permafrost. The carefully-chosen location at Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northern habituated areas, takes advantage of the area’s natural cooling abilities to cut down on cooling costs, similar to the way heat and cold need to be carefully managed on a server farm. The architecture was also built to withstand the force of a full missile strike, security that led to its ‘Doomsday Vault’ nickname.

With only 4 years in operation the Svalbard Vault already provides backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, a scope so epic its the bio-equivalent of backing-up the entire world’s financial system and records. It is estimated the Svalbard has backed-up two-thirds of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
“When I see this [seed consignment],” says Fowler,”I just think, ‘thank goodness, they’re safe.” Fowler’s sentiment is well-deserved although he undoubtedly begrudges the loss of over 75% of the world’s biodiversity that occurred before the facility’s opening.

The importance of the project and technology are being recognized for their uses far beyond the scope of being a simple bio catalog. “If we ignore genetic diversity while we develop GMO products, we risk a disease or pest emerging that will wipe those types out,” says John Soper, who heads up the crop genetics research department at chemicals giant DuPont. The Svalbard Vault is expected to be needed in the not-so-distant future to fight crop-destroying agents, global warming, pests and diseases.