Researchers have conducted an experiment where earthworms survived in simulated Martian soil. Could this be a milestone in the future of farming on Mars?

Like many others, I loved The Martian. It was a compelling story about survival in an unknown and inhospitable frontier. The ancient battle of Man versus Nature, except in space.

The movie also had some help with depicting actual Martian conditions thanks to a healthy collaboration with NASA. Now when we think of colonizing Mars many see it as a realistic endeavor for the future. After all, there’s sunlight, so if you can bring or make soil and nutrients, you should be able to farm.

The Martian
The Martian |

Matt Damon did it, so why can’t we?

According to new research, however, humans might not be the first to set up shop on the red planet, and that might improve our chances of using actual Martian soil. For that, we need worms.

A recent study has revealed that worms may be able to survive in Martian soil, which could improve the prospects of making Martian soil useful for farming. The experiment sheds some new light on the idea of long-term survival on the red planet.

So if we move to Mars, we’re going to need to bring at least one roommate: the humble worm.

There’s a New Martian in Town

It’s easy to forget about parts of our local ecosystem when we never see them. Worms spend most of their time below ground, digging through soil and aerating it. They also start the breakdown of matter, which releases nutrients into the soil.

In short, worms are good for the soil, which in turn is good for people. That’s the central thing about ecosystems that we will need to remember in our future trips to Mars; they have many living, moving parts.

If we're going to Mars, we might need a few roommates #likeworms #beestooClick To Tweet

Bearing that in mind, the birth of two healthy baby worms in simulated Martian soil is quite the milestone. Credit for the experiment goes out to Wieger Wamelink, a biologist at Wageningen University, and his NASA-made Martian soil.

According to university officials, they are the first offspring of adult worms to be born in a Mars soil simulation.

To put this into perspective, let’s imagine the kind of colonies we might see on Mars in the future. Humans will need to use closed ecosystems, much like the ‘Redwood Forest‘ idea hatched up by a team at MIT.

Now, within those ecosystems will be a lot of things that we need such as enough food, warmth, and moisture. At least one of those needs, food production and consumption, causes a lot of waste, which worms are great at breaking down. According to the researchers, when they break down this waste it releases nutrients that are critical for the nourishment and hydration of plant life.

The big idea for the experiment was to find out how well worms can do their thing in Martian soil. To measure that, the team added a little bit of pig manure to simulated Martian soil and let the worms work. After that, they planted various flowering plants in the worm-processed soil.

Let’s take a look at how the experiment turned out.

Could we Start Farming on Mars?

Wieger Wamelink

As you can see in the picture above, it looks like the plants turned out fine. As for the worms, well, the two baby worms are proof that they thrived.

The research is far from concluded, however. Already there is a crowdfunding campaign for testing out different crops and learning more about the effect of Martian soil on worm biology.

Martian soil isn’t as weathered as Earth soil, making it sharper and potentially harmful. Furthermore, there are more heavy metals on Mars, which could also prove to be a long-term problem.

But the reproduction of adult worms within Martian soil is an important step. If earthworms can thrive on Mars, then we might be able to do the same. It may even be possible to eventually exist outside of closed ecosystems.

Dimitri Gerondidakis | NASA

With NASA’s simulated soil and researchers around the world, we’re getting closer to finding out just how possible martian farming is.

Do you think that Mars could be suitable for farming? What would you grow?

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