REHOVOT, Israel - Israel may be struggling to win political allies, but in the scientific world the country is at the forefront of international cooperation.
An international gathering recently held at the Weizmann Institute of Science launched a computer network that will bring on-line biological resources within reach of scientists throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. The network, sponsored largely by UNESCO and coordinated by Weizmann Institute's Prof. Marvin Edelman, links scientists in these regions to the latest advances in medicine, biotechnology and agriculture by enabling them to tap into computerized data banks of genetic research.
Prof. Adnan Badran, deputy director-general of UNESCO, told the scientists and other delegates at the network's inauguration that molecular and cellular biology will be the "fastest-moving areas of science in the next century."
"If we don't develop the new network, many countries will be excluded from this fast-moving field," Prof. Badran said. "We can never have peace while there is a gap growing between those who know and those who don't."
Currently, Weizmann experts are training scientists from China, India, Poland and Turkey in running their own computerized connection to the latest genetics and molecular data. Eventually, these countries will serve as regional headquarters for such databases and guide their neighboring nations through the technology, known as bioinformatics.
The ultimate goal of ICCBnet (International Center for Cooperation in Bioinformatics network), as the Weizmann-based operation is called, is for scientists in developing nations to be just as "wired" as their colleagues in the industrialized world.
For example, a scientist in a Chinese town, seeking to improve a certain crop, will simply hook up his computer into a local network and travel via cyberspace to the other side of the planet to access data banks rich with information about that crop's genes. The scientist can then comb through a detailed design of particular genes and gather all the data gleaned about them by scientists around the world, rather than replicating the research himself.
Prof. Badran, who formerly served as minister of agriculture in the Jordanian government, said he is optimistic that scientists from the Arab world will some day join the new network.
"Political conflict can come between scientists, but collaboration can bring them together," he said. "We expect this to be a world wide web for scientists to talk to each other and use the data for research."
Badran expects scientists from desert regions to collaborate on enhancing crop production under stress conditions, such as brackish water or low rainfall, and to develop new strains of crops, for example wheat that can flourish in the desert.
The bioinformatics network's wealth of detailed data on plant genetics should be a bonanza for researchers in densely populated China and India. They can use the information to develop high-yield grains to address food shortages, Prof. Badran said. "The plant genome alone will address so many problems these countries might face with future population growth," he said.
Indeed, India's largest seed company sent a representative to Israel for the inauguration of the international bioinformatics network. Parag Palsapure, head of the computer division at the Mahyco Hybrid Seeds Company, said he hopes research on the network eventually "will help produce better seeds for oil, cereal, cotton and vegetables."
ICCBnet will concentrate on health and agricultural problems often overlooked by the Western world. For example, Prof. Badran expects scientists to use genome data to work on a vaccine for malaria, which primarily plagues the developing world. "This doesn't interest the industrialized world," he said. "It is a disease of the poor, not the rich."
Prof. Edelman, of the Weizmann Institute's Plant Genetics Department, holds the Sir Siegmund Warburg Chair of Agricultural Molecular Biology.
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.