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Fertile ground? Researchers hope a new institute in the Wadi Arabah will foster collaborations among Middle Eastern scientists.

New Science Center to Bridge the Rift

The bleak, fortified desert border between Jordan and Israel seems the last place on Earth for an ambitious multidisciplinary science institution, but the two states plan to break ground on 9 March for just such a venture. The Bridging the Rift science center, a "free academic zone" planned to straddle a literal gap in the fence, will host researchers from both countries and eventually other Middle Eastern nations.

The location is significant: 50 miles south of the Dead Sea in the Wadi Arabah, an extension of the African Rift. Once the frontier between the ancient Hebrew kingdom of Judah and its enemy, Edom, it is rich in history, culture, and archaeology--so much so that UNESCO is pushing to make it part of a World Heritage site. "Obviously the symbolism is as important as the science," says Marc Feldman, a Stanford University population geneticist who, along with colleagues at Cornell University, will help run the program. "We'll be bringing together people who don't normally have the opportunity to work together."

The center is the brainchild of Mati Kochavi, a New York City-based Israeli magnate involved in fiber optics and defense industries. Kochavi already has pledges of several million dollars--from his own funds and private donors'--toward a total cost he estimates at tens of millions of dollars. No government money is involved. However, Jordan and Israel have agreed to cede 75 adjoining acres each. According to a signed agreement, researchers will have free access to both countries through the portal.

Its first project will be a comprehensive catalog of all organisms around the Dead Sea--initially, plants and microbes--with an emphasis on how they handle the extreme heat, aridity, and salinity. Stanford-sponsored scientists will focus on collecting organisms and mapping their populations and ecology; Cornell will sequence genomes and integrate the data into a user-friendly system, dubbed the Library of the Desert. Potential applications include environmental engineering and crop design for the dry, saline soils of the Middle East. "This would be a springboard for all sorts of research from which surrounding nations would benefit," says James Haldeman, director of international programs for Cornell's College of Life Sciences.