March 9, 2004

Center Strives to Bridge Rifts in the Middle East

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After four years of planning and collaboration, ground is scheduled to be broken today on the border of Israel and Jordan at the Bridging the Rift Center, which will include the world’s first databank of information about all living systems. As part of this center, Cornell University and Stanford University are creating the Library of Life, a research facility in which scientists will gather information on everything from microbes to plants to animals.

The Library of Life serves as the centerpiece of the BTR facility. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled to be held today at the border site known as central Arava on the Israeli side and Wadi Araba on the Jordanian side.

After being initially approached in 2000, former Cornell president Hunter R. Rawlings III signed an agreement with the Bridging the Rift Foundation to develop a Cornell research center in the proposed facility. Since then, the Library of Life project has been overseen by Prof. Steven Tanksley, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of plant breeding, who serves as an advisor to the project.

Over this coming summer, teams of students from both Cornell and Stanford will be selected to travel to the center in January 2005. Each university will first send ten post-doctoral students. Some of these students will be involved with species collection, while others will work on the software side. Both Cornell and Stanford will offer doctoral degrees at the BTR Center.

Eventually, the BTR Center hopes to draw together scientists and students from both countries.

“I am passionately hopeful for the region,” said President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, commenting on the new center.

The BTR Center was founded with the goal of contributing to peace in the Middle East. In 2001, the Israeli and Jordanian governments both signed onto the project and contributed land to its construction. The proposed center straddles the border between the two countries, covering 150 acres. In this respect, this is the first proposed project which is placed on Israeli and Jordanian territory.

“Scientific collaboration is useful,” said Prof. Michelle Campos, Near Eastern studies, an expert on Israeli-Jordanian relations. Campos added that there is a history of friendly relations between Israel and Jordan, even before the 1994 Peace Accords. Campos added that there is not only warmth at the highest levels of the respective governments, but also an amiable relationship between intellectuals on both sides.

There are already several programs that bring Jordanian students to Israel to study with Israeli students. However, there are still many political issues that need to be resolved between the two countries.

Campos also commented on the safety of the Israeli-Jordanian border. Unlike the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where projects have been unsuccessful, the security of the Israeli-Jordanian border should allow for a successful collaboration.

According to a recent press release, the research center will develop computer modeling systems to make predictions at genetic levels and to help understand coevolution of species and the ways in which ecology affects DNA and the reverse.

“It’s a small plan to begin with,” said Prof. Ron Elber, computer science, the new director of the library. According to Elber, desert plants will be the first to be catalogued in a variety of ways.

“Comprehensive information [about the collected specimens] starts at the genomes and sequence but doesn’t stop there,” Elber said. Elber then highlighted other information that will be gathered, including location of

species using global positioning technology and any “interesting facts” about species.

Elber highlighted several benefits to working in the desert environment. He remarked that since the desert has a smaller variety of species as compared to other regions it “provides a nice place to start.” The other advantage, according to Elber, is that the desert is an extreme environment with organisms that have many interesting characteristics for survival.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan