The Svalbard Vault is Giant Computer Made of Seeds

User interface

The Svalbard Seed Vault, a global biodiversity storehouse for three-quarters of the world’s crop diversity, recently received a new shipment of seeds for 24,000 more species. This brings the hoard stored at the northern Norwegian facility dug out of the Arctic permafrost, to 740,000 seed types in a million-and-a-half samples. This is news, and good news.

But one aspect of it that has fascinated me is how closely the activities of the vault and its partner, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, parallel IT. In the Associated Press’ story on the new delivery, the writer said, “With the shipment from the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, almost its entire collection is now backed up in Svalbard.”

This is an important observation. Because Svalbard isn’t just a place to maintain seedstock. It’s a repository of biological data.

Those of us rolling around in the Internet think of data in bits and bytes. But data comes in all forms, even as the structure of relationships between its parts stays stable. It occurred to me that the data structure surrounding Svalbard could be expressed like this:





What’s the value of thinking of a seed repository in terms of data and data processing? Because Svalbard is not just a hole in the ground with seeds in it. It’s an organic computer devoted to the storage and retrieval of information requisite to the continuance of life itself, to say nothing of the science and culture we have created in our species’ history.

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