Ya’acov Berenson of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot was one of two Israelis honored as one of the world’s top young innovators. Two Israelis were honored last week by the prestigious MIT Technology Review for being among the world’s “top young innovators.

Dr. Kinneret Keren of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Ya’acov Berenson of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, were among the 100 honorees selected from among almost 650 candidates from around the world who were nominated for the award which was handed out at the Technology Review 2004 Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT.

The list is compiled by Technology Review, MIT’s “magazine of innovation.” Chosen by the magazine’s editors and a panel of judges, the TR 100 consists of 100 people under the age of 35 whose innovative work in technology has a profound impact on today’s world and will shape the future of the way we live and work.

Keren, who is in the middle of doing post-doctoral work at Stanford University in California, studied at the Technion with Prof. Erez Baron and Prof. Uri Sivan of the physics faculty. Last year, the research team succeeded in finding a way to produce the first molecular transistor made out of DNA. Reports on this pioneering development were published in the prestigious journal Science and a variety of other print media.

The Jerusalem-born researcher – whose father is a mathematician, mother was a computer scientist, and three siblings are all scientists – said that work at the Technion was very demanding, but also very rewarding.

“we invented something that was completely new and did not exist before. Science is usually composed of 90 percent frustration and 10 percent celebration. When you start from an idea, you experiment and often don’t succeed. But there are those rare wonderful moments when they do succeed and something new is created.”

“I was always interested in science,” she said. “Looking back through school, and as a clerk in the Defense Ministry during my military service, I was simply marking time until I could immerse myself in it.”

Keren’s research at Stanford is an extension of her Technion work using nanotechnology to pursue smaller and faster circuits.

“The silicon industry is already in the nano regime, now they’re trying more for the molecular regime,” she told the MIT Technology Review.

Keren’s accomplishment at The Technion consisted of attaching complementary pieces of DNA to a nanotube and to a silicon wafer; because the two pieces of DNA naturally bound to each other, they did the work of bringing the nanotube and the wafer together so as to produce a transistor. While Keren’s process remains a laboratory feat, it could eventually offer a new method of efficiently manufacturing tiny circuits in which each transistor is a single molecule.

An hour’s drive or so away from the Technion laboratories, Benenson works with Prof. Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute’s department of computer science and applied mathematics, and its department of biological chemistry in Rehovot.

Inspired by the world-famous Shapiro’s vision of a “doctor in a cell”, Benenson joined Weizmann in 1999 at age 24 and began to tackle the challenges of DNA-driven computing solutions for disease diagnosis and treatment. Benenson received the Wolf Foundation Prize for Excellence in Graduate Studies six years ago and is currently on the Dean’s List of the Feinberg Graduate School at Weizmann for his achievements in PhD studies and research.

He co-invented the world’s smallest biological computing device – a bio-molecular finite-state automaton made from DNA strands and DNA-manipulating enzymes. The automaton, about a trillionth the size of a drop of water, was listed in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest biological computing device.

Recently, this device was enhanced to detect and diagnose molecular symptoms of cancer in vitro and, in response, to release a drug to treat the cancer. Benenson’s breakthrough in this area of research exceeded earlier progress predictions by Shapiro and others.

“It was a good feeling when we all got called up at the end of the conference and recognized for our award,” Benenson told ISRAEL21c following the event at MIT. “The attitude among the people I met was generally very positive about my research and Israeli research in general.”

Shapiro praises Benenson for being a “key innovator and leading experimentalist in the biological computer team. It is very gratifying to have his contributions acknowledged by MIT’s Technology Review editors and the distinguished panel of judges for the 100 Top Young Innovators of 2004 award.”

Benenson commented that “nature invented intricate molecular tools to detect and repair malfunctions in cells and organisms. Ultimately, our research may lead to the use of biomolecular computers to supplement and enhance existing natural defenses.”

“Inclusion among the TR100 has become one of the most prestigious awards for young innovators around the world,” said David Rotman, executive editor of Technology Review. “This year’s winners are an elite group whose visions and inventions will shape the future of technology.”

“I plan on continuing in the field of molecular computing, but I don’t know where I’ll be doing it since I’m about the graduate from the Weizmann Institute,” said Benenson. “I would like to stay in the academic world.”