Spacelab boys

Two Israeli teenagers reach the finals of a worldwide competition for designing a science experiment that can be carried out in space. "In our experiment, that was chosen to be in the big final of the SpaceLab competition, we want to examine the effect of gravity on the mating process of baker’s yeast."

 Spacelab boys


  Yoav Levi, left, and Ariel Berko at the Weizmann Institute.  Photo courtesy of Google Israel

By Avigayil Kadesh

“We are Ariel Berko and Yoav Levi from Rogozin High School in Kiryat Ata, Israel. In our experiment, that was chosen to be in the big final of the SpaceLab competition, we want to examine the effect of gravity on the mating process of baker’s yeast, which multiplies via sexual reproduction. We think that the yeast will not do sexual reproduction in space because in this process there are many changes in the cells of the yeast and we think that they are affected by gravity.”

That’s how two Israeli 10th-graders described their proposal for YouTube Space Lab, a worldwide competition that challenges 14- to 18-year-olds to design a science experiment that can be done in outer space. The concept was born at a marketing brainstorming session at Google, YouTube’s parent company, and is co-sponsored by Lenovo.

Based on popular votes received by thousands of applicants, the Israeli boys’ yeast experiment made it to the finals. Now the finalists’ ideas are being scrutinized by an international panel of judges including NASA officials, former astronauts Leland Melvin, Frank De Winne and Akihiko Hoshide, and Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Laliberté.

Six regional winners to be announced February 21 will go to Washington, DC, in March to experience a Zero-G flight and receive other prizes including a Lenovo ThinkPad. Two global winners from this group, representing ages 14-16 and ages 17-18, will have their experiments performed 250 miles above Earth in the International Space Station (ISS), live-streamed on YouTube.

The global winners will get a trip to Tanegashima Island, Japan, to watch their experiment blast off in a rocket bound for the ISS. Alternatively, winners may wait until they turn 18 to train with cosmonauts in Star City, Russia.

Yeast and humans

Fifteen-year-old Yoav explains that he and Ariel (16) heard about the competition through the program for gifted young scientists that they attend for two days, three times a year, at the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. “They asked us if we wanted to take part, and we did,” says Ariel.

Their first idea was to see the effect of gravity on human reproductive cells, but that would have necessitated a microscope, which is against the rules of the competition. “So we searched for something in the same model but bigger,” says Yoav. “The Davidson Institute offered us to try it with yeast, and one of the PhD students there helped us plan the experiment.”

Ariel describes yeast as “a very interesting creature from which we can study about humans. We are more developed creatures, but with a lot in common.”

Yeast exists in two varieties: one reproduces asexually and the other sexually, through a complex mating process called “shmooing.” If yeast can reproduce in zero gravity, perhaps humans also could – and vice versa.