Can plants be the data storage of the future? | Sunday Observer

Can plants be the data storage of the future?

22 January, 2023

In 2017, after stumbling across the link between exponential growth in cloud data storage and associated rise in greenhouse gas emissions, two creatives embarked on a journey to seek solutions - and now they think storing data in plants may be the answer.

A way of storing and accessing digital data such as documents, music files, and pictures remotely, cloud storage was believed to have been invented in the 1960s, and became increasingly popular from the 1990s. By now, the popularity of cloud storage is so much that a study published in Nature this year by Saxena et al says that by 2030, global demand in energy consumption for cloud storage will be about 8 percent.

This will be more than 3.2 percent of the total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, higher than the 1.8 reported by Our World in Data in 2020 for the much criticised aviation industry. Cyrus Clarke and Monika Seyfried, Co-Founders of the startup Grow Your Own Cloud, call this link between cloud data storage and global warming as “data warming,” and in they believe DNA, the molecules storing genetic information of organisms, is the alternative.

But the duo wanted to look beyond the existing methods of storing data in DNA, which mainly uses bacteria, and think of a way which absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and also creates its own energy. This made them look at whether it is possible to successfully store data in plants, and step by step they managed to breakthrough a technology that was successful in doing just this.

A liquid drop of data

To achieve this result, the research team found a way to translate digital files that are saved as binary code, using unique sequences of 0s and 1s, to DNA sequences.

“Then we can synthesise that DNA to create a liquid drop of data, stored in a new physical form as liquid DNA,” Clarke said.

The next step included finding a method to engineer plants to “contain” this liquid drop of DNA.

They ended up collaborating with plant geneticists and plant engineers to make it possible to transform the plants in such a way that this liquid drop of data could be introduced – something that used to be a “complete mystery” to science before.

Any effective data storage mechanism also needs to successfully retrieve data, and to enable this, Seyfried and Clarke teamed up with Jeff Nivala, an expert in DNA data sequencing, a way of mapping the information carried in DNA.

“To retrieve data, we took liquid samples from the plants and introduced the droplets to a sequencer (a machine) that would decode and represent the data on a screen,” Clarke said.

Since the technology is still at preliminary stages, the data retrieval is not yet real time. Also the process is still “complex and expensive.”

“But DNA is the language of life, and also an excellent information systems language,” Seyfried notes. It is an excellent data storage medium, it is robust, and energy efficient – since it is very dense, vast amounts of digital data can be stored in liquid forms of synthetic DNA, she added.

With this technology, they built a data garden, where plants like tobacco and Arabidopsis grow holding text, image and sound files in their DNA. This “carbon negative data infrastructure” won the prestigious Science Breakthrough of the year 2022 award under the art and science category, at the Falling Walls Science Summit held annually in Berlin in November to celebrate the anniversary of the peaceful falling of the Berlin wall, and to identify and celebrate the next walls to fall in science and society.

The uniqueness of the project by Seyfried and Clarke partly comes from the fact that both of them are from creative backgrounds.

“Scientists may not really ask this kind of questions,” Clarke said, describing how scientists were “completely surprised and shocked” when they shared the idea during their first conversations on collaborations.

What happens when the plant dies?

For this technique of data storage, the survival of the plants remains crucial. This leads to the immediate question of what happens to the data when a plant dies.

“If the plant dies, you can still retrieve the data for a long time from the plant’s DNA. Also, the plant reproduces itself, which is interesting when it comes to possible backups,” Seyfried said.

The amount of data that can be stored within a plant is determined by the size of the genome – meaning the total amount of genetic material found in an organism.

“Different plants have different lengths of genome. Some plants that are small have longer genome sizes than bigger trees. It is fascinating,” Seyfried said.

Pine trees for example have “quite large, excellent, long genes” that can store up to nine gigabytes of data right now, which can store a couple of movies, she said.

Seyfried added that the encoding mechanism can change the amount of data that can be stored in a plant, because of compression and all.

But most plants can store less than 100 kilobytes right now, which can be a small image, or a very compressed piece of music, Clarke added.

“And that is not because the plant cannot store more data, it is because it is hard for science to get that data into the plant, without it being rejected,” Clarke said.

Another pressing factor to consider is whether this kind of genetic transformations are safe to the organisms as well as for the ecosystem.

“As far as we know, within synthetic biology, it is safe in terms of what we’re doing right now,” Clarke said.

The genetic transformation of the plant carried out by the team does not affect a plant’s characteristic properties, he said, adding that the nature of a plant is not changed during the process.

But for the moment, these engineered plants, carrying data, should be kept away from the ecosystem, he added, simply because there is not enough known about their potential impact on the ecosystems.

Seyfried and Clarke are right now exploring whether it is possible to switch from server farms to data forests, in collaboration with the European Commission. This includes looking at how more data and more nature can be invited to the cities, and what type of impact that will have on the urban ecosystem, as well as on the citizens.