Date Posted: 5/25/2004

The building of a pioneering life sciences research complex situated in the desert on the border between Jordan and Israel will begin this year, the Bridging the Rift Foundation has announced.

The foundation is leading an international group of scientists and educators from Jordan, Israel, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., in building a research and education center to gather, organize and model information about all living systems.

The two universities also have named the first directors of the Library of Life, the core of the Bridging the Rift (BTR) Center in which information on living systems will be gathered. The Cornell directors are Steven Tanksley, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of plant breeding, who proposed the Library of Life, and Ron Elber, professor of computer science. The Stanford director is Marcus Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of biological sciences and Director of the Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies at Stanford.

The directors' first goal will be to develop a prototype, the Library of the Desert, centered on the Dead Sea region.

By the end of this year, a road and a perimeter fence will have been constructed around the 150-acre site, donated by the governments of Jordan and Israel. In addition, trees will have been planted around the site. Next year, the first laboratory, a 3,000-square-meter (3,588 square yards), three-story structure containing both a full molecular biology laboratory and computer installations, will have been built, together with a dormitory for up to 40 people.

Mati Kochavi, a New York City businessman who heads the BTR Foundation, said, "By 2006 we expect to have a real scientific
community in place."

The first resident scientists, both senior and postdoctoral researchers drawn from Israeli and Jordanian universities as well as
from Cornell and Stanford, will begin arriving at the desert center next year. Israeli and Jordanian graduate students will begin their
studies at Cornell and Stanford in 2006 and will transfer to the BTR Center in 2008, where they will work side by side on their doctoral studies on the ecology and biology of the region.

Groundbreaking for the BTR Center was held at the border-straddling site, 69 kilometers (43 miles) south of the Dead Sea in Wadi Araba, Jordan/central Arava, Israel, on March 9, 2004. The project, which has the support of King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, is being financed by contributions from institutions, businessmen and individual donors in the United States, Jordan and Israel, with seed money coming from the foundation.

The BTR partners - Jordan, Israel, Cornell and Stanford - are assembling a steering committee of five to 10 people for research and training programs and a 20-member BTR advisory board (five members from each partner), all senior scientists who will both teach and conduct research at the desert center. The researchers will fall into five categories: ecology/biodiversity, microbiology,
physiology/biochemistry, computer science/data management and biostatistics/genetics.

These scientists, aided by postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, will work in the Library of Life, beginning with living systems in the Dead Sea region, from microbes to plants to animals. The researchers will collect and analyze information - ecological and environmental and at the molecular and DNA levels - and send it to a new type of databank, which is under development at Cornell under the leadership of Tanksley and Elber.

The biological program is being formed at Stanford under the direction of Feldman.

Elber says the Library of Life, and its Library of the Desert prototype, will have a profound impact on the intersection of information and computer sciences with the life sciences, providing a catalog of organisms, their interactions with each other and their environment, their physiology and their genes. Johannes Gehrke, assistant professor of computer science at Cornell, said it is hoped that the new databank at the heart of the library will become a Google of the biological sciences and an essential online research tool for every investigator in modern life sciences.

Feldman says that the biology program will attempt to answer such questions as what organisms exist in the Dead Sea and the desert, how they are related to known organisms, how they have adapted to these extreme conditions, what genes have allowed this adaptation and whether these genes can be used to human advantage in areas such as medicine, pharmacology, agriculture and conservation biology.

Graduate students studying for their doctorates will do their course work at either Cornell or Stanford before transferring to the BTR Center for their research programs. Postdoctoral fellows also will work at Cornell or Stanford before moving to the center. In addition, the desert facility will be visited by U.S. scientists for research projects, and it will take science programs to schools on both the Jordanian and Israeli sides of the border.