Nov. 14, 2006

Jordanian scientists in Bridging the Rift project come to Cornell for training in analyzing biological data

A group of 15 prominent Jordanian scientists visited Cornell Nov. 2 to begin work on a long-term project to study life forms that live in extreme conditions.

Their weeklong visit, during which they trained with Cornell researchers in the field of bioinformatics, or the use of computers to analyze biological data, was part of the Bridging the Rift (BTR) project, a collaboration between Jordan, Israel and the United States to promote science and peace.

The computer scientists, biologists and chemists said they plan to use the information provided by Cornell to train others in Jordan.

"We all came here under the umbrella of the Bridging the Rift Foundation to collaborate with Cornell and improve our skills in bioinformatics," said a Jordanian microbiologist who is head of the academic committee from BTR Jordan and declined to be identified. "We plan to establish a bioinformatics center of excellence for Jordan and Israel." (A center of excellence is a clearinghouse for resources and information.)

Added Ron Elber, Cornell professor of computer science and on the board of BTR: "We are looking here to establish a long-term project. By bringing them here we are creating human relationships and identifying possible collaborations."

The BTR project includes an active network of more than 100 researchers from Cornell, Stanford University, and five Jordanian and five Israeli universities. At the core of the project is the development of a Library of Life of the Desert, the world's first database of ecological, biological, molecular and genetic information of life forms in extreme conditions. Each participating university is currently developing its own partnership laboratory, but eventual plans include a BTR Center, a life sciences research complex -- which also will train graduate students from both sides of the border -- on 150 acres donated equally by both countries, 43 miles south of the Dead Sea. The New York architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has already drafted an award-winning design for the center, but construction is on hold.

"The foundation is working very hard to solve with the governments the legal issues," because a collaboration of this kind between these two nations has never before been attempted, said Mati Kochavi, a New York businessman and a native of Israel who heads the BTR Foundation. Currently, scientists are engaged in cross-border fieldwork on desert life twice a month. "This border has been a symbol of war, and now it is a symbol of science," said Kochavi. "The scientists of Israel and Jordan are going between the border as if it wasn't there."

The visiting Jordanian scientists are investigating microbial species that thrive in the high-saline waters (organisms known as halophiles) of the Dead Sea and high-temperature hot springs (organisms known as thermophiles). By examining the mechanisms that allow these species to exist in these extreme conditions, scientists may find applications for using microbes for bioremediation to clean up hazardous waste.

"We learn about these mechanisms by using tools of bioinformatics, by looking at whole genomes and finding patterns that repeat in genetic material," said Elber.