AgCast: Will DNA Storage Make Crops the New Cloud?

Think of all the ways you’ve seen data storage evolve. Floppy disks, hard disks, jump drives. Now, researchers are looking to some of Mother Nature’s tiniest building blocks for the next way to meet the world’s rapidly skyrocketing data storage needs.

 

Researchers have been talking about mimicking DNA structures to serve as data storage mechanisms for a couple of years now. In fact, the idea has been proven that the DNA double-helix structure could provide almost limitless storage capacity for Big Data, underpinning a growing part of our lives. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but researchers have encoded synthetic DNA structures with data files and successfully retrieved them later, proving the viability of the medium for data storage.

 

This opens up an area of computing that could have huge implications for agriculture and the companies that provide goods and services for farmers.

 

The discovery and subsequent research could soon yield a solution to a growing problem: where do we store our exponentially increasing amounts of data? Currently, we’re using massive computer systems to maintain the cloud, which requires a substantial amount of energy to operate. But what if good old-fashioned, natural DNA could instead be genetically treated or edited so it can house data?

 

The result could be a completely new, altogether disruptive use for crops. Fields of perennial plants could become essentially data storage “warehouses,” with DNA strands of individual plants housing almost unfathomable amounts of data. The numbers are almost difficult to wrap your mind around: Researchers have said each gram of DNA can hold more than 450 exabytes of data. That’s 450 billion gigabytes in one gram of DNA. Imagine the potential of fields of plants that have even a fraction of our current data storage capabilities.

 

There remain hurdles to this becoming reality. Beyond the inherent task of replicating this kind of technology on a widely scaled basis, it’s a costly process. Right now, it takes thousands of dollars to read and synthesize even small amounts of data. But, NASA also sent men to the moon in machines that cost millions of dollars and had a fraction of the computing capabilities that are available to just about every consumer today, so it’s inevitable that the technology and cost barriers will subside.

 

Changing Rural Landscapes

 

One day, there could be fields of genetically edited plants that have been developed not to produce bin-busting crop yields for food, feed or fiber, but to sustain the world’s rapidly growing supply of data. Productivity will be measured in terabytes and exabytes, not bushels. Modern, high-tech agronomy will target not just annual yield, but long-term, consistent growth that can be replicated in field after field. Plants will be developed that can sustain data through DNA in the face of even the most challenging environmental conditions. If a plant can survive, it will be able to fulfill its purpose in the new world of crop-based data storage.

 

But, data security is no joke, and these “Data DNA Farms” will require major security mechanisms. Years ago, when rural America was hit by the methamphetamine epidemic and perpetrators were using anhydrous ammonia as an ingredient, a cottage industry grew out of the need to lock tanks and secure them from illegal use. The same will happen with the security needs of data farms. Farmers will need assurances that their land will be safe, just like data warehousers and managers will have high standards for maintaining consistent, uninterrupted consumer data access.

 

That will all require major change for the small agricultural towns that dot the United States. First, it will take a jump in attention to environment and plant conditions. Artificial intelligence can play a role in monitoring the fields that comprise tomorrow’s data storage, but human support for data farms will have to be consistent, uninterrupted and precise. Today’s precision agriculture specialists are the forerunners of a new “data crop technician” role that will become a common part of crop management. And, they will require a new level of both agronomic and technological infrastructure that could be a boon to towns that are today in dire need of economic development and sustainability.

 

Questions Surrounding Data Farms

 

Data farms do create a lot more questions at the farm level and beyond. What happens if the plants whose DNA is housing data are hit by a damaging pest and die? DNA can be fairly fragile if it is forced to live in conditions outside what’s normal for its organism, and it does degrade over time. So, strict attention must be paid to the health and sustenance of the plants housing the DNA that houses the world’s data.

 

Then, there’s the issue of land use. With so many mouths to feed on this planet, the idea of taking land out of food production may not be the most popular notion, and it may mean the first data farms will be smaller tracts of land. After all, the DNA required to house the world’s data won’t occupy a tremendous amount of physical space, so data farms may not take the place of the Midwest’s large corn and soybean farms or the immense wheat farms of the Palouse in the northwestern U.S. However, with the right plants as the host organisms, data farms could occupy land that’s less than optimal for today’s crop production.

 

With fewer acres going toward data farming, the impact on food production will be lessened. So too will the impact on food prices tied to land use. It will be critical for world crop production to continue it’s upward arc by the time data farms come along to occupy even a single acre of productive farm land.

 

What about the developing world? With so many challenges to sustaining food production in regions like east Africa, where both natural and human influences weigh heavily on food output and farmer revenue, data farms could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they might take land out of production, which is something regions like these cannot afford. On the other hand, if data farms can yield more farmer revenue and start to lift historically impoverished producers out of that poverty, they could be the new mechanisms for rural vitality.

 

Implications for Agrimarketers

 

What does it mean to agrimarketers? Data farms will require a new level of attention by crop input companies and data farmers will call upon their data crop technicians to help them maintain the levels of production necessary to provide uninterrupted data storage maintenance. The companies who thrive in this environment will be those who offer the products and services data farmers will need with the ability to deliver them with precision and timeliness, all the while continuing to be trusted advisers and partners.

 

When precision ag was in its infancy, it was a tough sell for some farmers because it applied altogether new, sometimes disruptive technologies to crop production. The transition to the data farm economy will be similar but will likely face a steeper adoption curve. Successful agribusinesses who become a part of this new economy will be those who can adapt, provide the new tools and services data farmers need, and grow the trust critical to being long-term partners in sustaining farmers’ new roles in the increasingly data-heavy digital world.

 

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