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Teens get to put their bugs in orbit

Philip Montgomery

Regional winners in the YouTube Space Lab competition are treated to a zero-gravity airplane flight during their visit to Washington.

Teenage scientists will get to have their bugs — specifically, spiders and bacteria — fly up to the International Space Station. That's the bottom line from the YouTube Space Lab contest, which reached its climax this morning at the Newseum in Washington when the organizers announced that Egypt's Amr Mohamed and the United States' Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma were the global winners.

"The idea of sending an experiment into space is the most exciting thing I have ever heard in my life," Mohamed said in a news release. "Winning YouTube Space Lab means everything to me, to my family, and to the people of the Middle East."

Mohamed's experiment focuses on how zero-gravity affects the way zebra spiders catch their prey. Previous experiments in space have shown that, after an adjustment period, spiders were able to adapt their web-weaving skills to microgravity in orbit. But the zebra spiders might have a harder time, because they depend on capturing their prey by pouncing on them rather than using webs. Will the spiders be able to adjust their jumps for zero-G? "I believe it is going to show a major behavioral change," Mohamed says.

Egypt's Amr Mohamed explains how the jumping-spider experiment works.

It's all systems go for Mohamed's experiment because the 18-year-old from Alexandria won the 17-to-18 age category in the Space Lab contest, sponsored by YouTube, Lenovo and Space Adventures. The opportunity to have experiments flown up to the space station, and have the orbital activities streamed live via YouTube, was arguably the biggest draw for the five-month-long global Space Lab competition.

Chen and Ma, two 16-year-olds from Troy High School in Michigan, were judged the top entrants in the 14-to-16 group. They took a page from previous research indicating that salmonella bacteria became more virulent in zero-G, a finding that could lead to more effective vaccines against food poisoning. The two girls proposed an experiment to send another type of bacteria, known as Bacillus subtilis, to do its thing under controlled conditions on the space station.

On Earth, Bacillus subtilis has an antifungal effect, and Chen and Ma want to find out whether subjecting the bacteria to zero-G will make them even better fungus-fighters. Who knows? This may be the next frontier in the battle against athlete's foot.

"The idea that something that is your experiment being sent up into space and actually becoming a reality is incredible," Ma said.

Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen explain their experiment with Bacillus subtilis.

Mohamed, Chen and Ma have the choice of traveling to Japan this summer to watch the launch of their experiments on a Japanese cargo craft heading for the space station, or going through a cosmonaut training program in Russia at a later time.

This week, they and the competition's other regional winners were shown a great time in Washington: They received Lenovo laptops, got a special tour of the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center and met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"We have a lot of top scientists who come before our committee," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told the kids. "But I think you're better than all of them."

The highlight of the trip was a weightless ride on a Zero G airplane. Here's a video ... from YouTube, naturally ... that recaps the past few days for the Space Lab winners:

The YouTube Space Lab Regional Winners arrive in Washington for their prize.

Don't you think science-minded students should be as celebrated as, say, the singing stars on "American Idol"? Admittedly, watching bacteria multiply may not be as entertaining as Heejun Han's antics — but in the long run, what's more important?

Here's what physicist Stephen Hawking had to say on the subject: "Humanity's future relies on moving beyond Earth. Realizing this goal will require an entrepreneurial spirit and a new generation of scientists and astronauts. YouTube Space Lab is a wonderful initiative that helps inspire young minds around the world to take a greater interest in science and the future of space exploration."

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts about how to foster the next generation of scientists and astronauts — and stay tuned to find out the fate of the zero-G jumping spiders and the fungus-fighting germs.

More about the next generation of scientists:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.