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Jordanian Biologist Hanan Malkawi Says the Dead Sea Could Be Cultivated

The award-winning Jordanian biologist Hanan Malkawi says it may be possible to cultivate the Dead Sea.

Malkawi, who was recently honoured by Jordan’s King Abdullah II for her work in biotechnology and nanotechnology, told Al-Fanar Media that in her recent research she had isolated bacteria that live in the highly saline environment of the Dead Sea.

“If these organisms can live, that means there are genes that produce enzymes that are resistant to salinity,” she said. And if these genes can be transferred from bacteria to plants, “we can cultivate the Dead Sea to turn it from a barren area into an environment suitable for cultivation.”

Malkawi, who has published more than 70 papers in international journals and obtained a number of patents, previously won the 2014 Asian Education Leadership and Innovation Award for outstanding leaders in international education.

“If these organisms can live, that means there are genes that produce enzymes that are resistant to salinity.” If we can transfer these genes from bacteria to plants, “we can cultivate the Dead Sea to turn it from a barren area into an environment suitable for cultivation.”

Hanan Malkawi  

She is currently chairwoman of the Academic Committee of the Scientific Research and Innovation Support Fund at Jordan’s Ministry of Higher Education and has previously served as vice president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and as dean of research and doctoral studies at Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, in Dubai.

Promising Academic Career

Hanan Issa Malkawi was born in Irbid, northern Jordan, to a teacher father and a mother who worked as a weaver. One of ten children, Malkawi excelled in high school and won two scholarships, one to study medicine in the United States and another to study biology at Yarmouk University.

Her parents’ desire to keep their eighteen-year-old daughter nearby was behind her decision to study in Jordan, she said.

After obtaining a Bachelor of Science in biology from Yarmouk University in 1981, she received a full scholarship to take master’s and doctoral degrees at Washington State University in the United States.

At that time, Malkawi was still single and tradition did not allow her to travel alone. However, her father persuaded her mother to let their talented daughter study abroad. He told his wife he believed their daughter would return with a master’s degree and a doctorate.

Hanan Malkawi with members of her research team at Yarmouk University, in Irbid, Jordan. (Photo: Amna Al Rabie)
Hanan Malkawi with members of her research team at Yarmouk University, in Irbid, Jordan. (Photo: Amna Al Rabie)

He was proved right. Malkawi earned a master’s degree in bacteriology from Washington State University in 1984, and a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular biology three years later.

When she returned to Jordan, a then 27-year-old Malkawi joined the teaching staff at Yarmouk University. Speaking to Al-Fanar Media via Zoom, she smiled as she recalled that her students were surprised she was going to teach them because she was not much older than they were.

Research Projects

Malkawi’s research has focused on biotechnology and nanotechnology and their applications in medicine, agriculture, food security and the environment. Her projects include studies of how to maintain water quality and protect against pollution; early detection of tumours and reducing their spread; and preparing medicinal products. She said her research was driven by national priorities of Jordan and the Arab region.

“Most of the research that is carried out at Arab universities and research centres is theoretical and general, and does not tackle serious questions to create solutions, overcome difficulties, and face societal challenges.”

Hanan Malkawi  

She is currently studying the behaviour of microorganisms in harsh environments like the Dead Sea, outer space, deserts and polluted areas. She said her goal was not only to study these organisms but also to explore how humanity could benefit from such research.

In cooperation with the U.S.-based KSF Space Foundation, Malkawi runs a research project on the possibility of growing non-pathogenic bacteria and other microbes in outer space and their resistance to conditions like zero gravity, radiation and fluctuations in temperature and pressure.

This April she prepared bacterial samples that were launched in a capsule into a low-space orbit 33 kilometers above sea level. The capsule returned to earth a day later.

After examining the samples, Malkawi noticed genetic mutations where the microorganisms had not only survived but adapted in some way. She believes this finding could hold important implications for human health.

“We are studying how these bacteria could be used in the service of astronauts and their diets,” she said. “This gives us a model that may help develop strategies to mitigate future risks.”

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Ideas she has patented include a process for using magnetic nanoparticles to detect and eliminate pathogenic microbes in water and the use of nanotechnology in detecting and reducing cancerous tumors.

Arab Scientific Research ‘Too Theoretical’

Malkawi was critical about the reality of scientific research in the Arab world. She said there was no clear strategy to support applied research or link it to what was needed in industry.

The president of Yarmouk University, Islam Massad, congratulates Hanan Malkawi after the royal honours ceremony. (Photo: Yarmouk University)
The president of Yarmouk University, Islam Massad, congratulates Hanan Malkawi after the royal honours ceremony. (Photo: Yarmouk University)

“Most of the research that is carried out at Arab universities and research centres is theoretical and general, and does not tackle serious questions to create solutions, overcome difficulties, and face challenges in society,” she said.

Malkawi said funding problems could be overcome by appealing to donors at home and abroad. Using her own success as an example, she said she had been able to obtain $15 million from international donors to fund scientific research at Yarmouk University.

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