Unique desert research center takes shape on the Israeli-Jordanian border

Gil Slevin, Central Arava Regional Council Bridging the Rift Foundation

Jordanian, Israeli and American scientists collect water and soil samples on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea in January 2005 as part of a two-day field survey sponsored by the Bridging the Rift Foundation.

While ethnic conflict in the Middle East continues to dominate the headlines, a unique collaboration between Arab and Israeli scientists is quietly taking shape along the border between Jordan and Israel.

Launched just one year ago, the Bridging the Rift (BTR) project now includes some 40 researchers from Israel, Jordan and the United States who have come together to establish the first scientific institute jointly operated by Israel and one of its Arab neighbors.

"My hope is that Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza also will become involved," said Stanford University biologist Marcus Feldman, academic director of the project. "We've contacted Egyptian scientists and hope they will join as well."

Feldman began working with the Bridging the Rift Foundation in 2001, when he was approached by foundation president Mati Kochavi, an Israeli businessman living in New York. Kochavi's dream was to create a bioscience research center jointly operated by Israel and Jordan that would encourage the free exchange of ideas between Arab and Israeli scientists, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To boost the project's credibility, Kochavi enlisted Stanford and Cornell universities as academic partners.

Dead Sea scienceKochavi's dream became reality on March 9, 2004, when he, Feldman and others joined Jordanian and Israeli government officials at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Bridging the Rift Center, a new life sciences research facility located in the remote desert region known as the central Arava area about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea. This arid region is of particular interest to scientists because it is home to many plants, animals and microbes that have evolved special attributes enabling them to survive in a harsh climate some 1,200 feet (417 meters) below sea level—the lowest elevation on Earth.

The 150-acre project site literally straddles the border, with half of the facility in Israel and half in Jordan. A wire fence separates the border from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, but in February, Israel and Jordan agreed to take down the barrier at the project site so that construction could move forward.

When fully operational, the research center will have three laboratory buildings, a convention hall and a residential facility. Israel and Jordan have designated the site a "free education zone," so that project affiliates will eventually be able to enter from either country using specially coded magnetic cards, avoiding the need for passports or visas. Phase one of the facility could be completed by the end of the year.

Field surveyWhile construction continues, scientific research also is moving forward. In January, Feldman and five American colleagues joined nine scientists from Jordan and eight from Israel in what the Jerusalem Post called the first joint biological field survey ever conducted on both sides of the border. "This willingness [of the Jordanians] to cooperate with Israelis is an ideal basis for creating understanding, trust, friendship and peace between our two peoples," Kochavi said.

During the two-day survey, researchers conducted an inventory of life in central Arava that collected microbes and plants from 22 previously identified sites in both countries. The samples are being sent to Stanford and facilities in Jordan and Israel for analysis.

"We'd like to examine these species, from their DNA to their physiology, to understand how they manage to prosper in this environment," said Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences.

While the Israeli scientists openly participated in the field survey, their Jordanian counterparts asked that their names and institutional affiliations not be made public for fear of retaliation back home.

"There are a lot of Palestinians in Jordan who don't like this project, although many academics are supportive," Feldman explained. "It just shows how dedicated the Jordanians are to the science and to the advancement of science in their country. They've worked very hard to bring it to the stage it's at right now, and I hope they'll engage their graduate students, also."

Science and peaceIn addition to Feldman, four Stanford biologists also participated in the field survey—Harold Mooney, Brendan Bohannan, Michael Levitt and Dmitri Petrov—along with Ron Elber, a professor of computer science at Cornell.

"It was exciting seeing the Israeli and Jordanian scientists interact with our group," said Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford. "I have felt for a long time that science is an important instrument for peace, because scientists speak a universal language."

An ecologist, Mooney noted that the Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of 3 feet (1 meter) a year because of freshwater diversion from the Jordan River for Jordanian farms and groundwater pumping for Israeli factories that produce large amounts of methyl bromide, a pesticide.

Mooney was particularly interested in collecting samples of tamarisk, a Mediterranean plant that has become a serious nuisance since being introduced into the United States, especially in the arid Southwest, because of its ability to soak up enormous quantities of water at the expense of native American plants.

Bohannan, a microbiologist who is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford, also collected numerous samples during the survey. "About half of the scientists were microbial scientists," he said, adding that "microbial life in the Dead Sea area is not well studied."

The region is home to a number of microbes that thrive in extremely salty conditions or in hot springs where the temperature can reach 140 F (60 C). Scientists have even identified 16 previously unknown microbial genera inhabiting the very salty substance that extrudes from the leaves of the tamarisk plant.

DNA analysis may lead to the discovery of specialized genes that allow these microbes to thrive, Bohannan said. Such research could turn out to have medical or biological applications in the future, he added.

Security issuesThe field survey set out from the small Israeli town of Hatzevah, where 540 families are involved in high-tech agriculture. Most of the vegetables exported from Israel are grown in the region. Security in the area is relatively light. In fact, a number of Israelis operate farms in Jordan and routinely cross the border at a special security point near Hatzevah. The scientific team used the same border crossing en route to collecting samples on the Jordanian and Israeli sides of the Dead Sea in January.

"We can't underestimate the degree to which security is a concern to the Bridging the Ridge Foundation," Feldman noted. "Very senior security people from the Israeli and Jordanian forces have been involved in every phase of the project."

"I felt very safe there," Bohannan recalled. "My wife said she's more worried about me bicycling on Skyline Boulevard [near the Stanford campus]."

Bohannan is coordinating a proposal for additional funding for the microbiological aspects of the project, and said he hopes to return to the region in the near future. Meanwhile, in April Stanford will host a conference on microbial ecology that will bring computer scientists from Jordan and Israel together to discuss future research stimulated by the January field survey.

"These people are really dedicated to making this happen, and I'm happy to be involved in some small way," Mooney said. "It's really a wonderful dream."

Bohannan and Feldman