Human existence on Mars could depend on creepy crawlies, but this time it’s not aliens.
Earthworms could be turning into Mars-worms if a recent experiment that spawned two offspring in simulated Martian soil is is any indication. Humans will have to adapt to maintaining closed ecosystem models if we ever want to be an interplanetary species. This is why biologist Wieger Wamelink and his team of researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands re-created the sandy soil of the Red Planet, to which they added pig manure (which will have to be human if we have any prospect of living on Mars long-term) and other organic matter from previous experiments before transferring to pots in which they planted arugula. Then they let some adult worms crawl in to see what happened.
“Clearly, the manure stimulated growth, especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active,” said Wamelink. “However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant.”
The simulated Martian soil was tested against Earth sand, which it surprisingly outperformed. This gives future human Martians and moon dwellers a positive outlook for growing food in the middle of what is essentially a barren wasteland.
Worms keep the soil healthy by aerating it and improving its structure as they slither around, which is ideal for watering on a planet where the soil won’t absorb water too easily. As they tunnel through the ground, they also ingest dead organic matter that they mix with the soil as their bodies process it. The remaining organic matter they excrete can be further broken down by bacteria, and decomposition releases nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients essential for plants. If edible plants thrive on Mars, so will humans.
Worms for Mars is Wageningen’s crowdfunding effort that stresses the importance of worms when it comes to cultivating edible crops on Mars or the moon. Further testing will be needed to determine whether the worms can withstand the sharp edges found in lunar and Martian soil because of the lack of weathering on both of those worlds. It is possible that the creatures’ guts could be shredded by the jagged soil. Heavy metals present in extraterrestrial soil could also do long-term damage. To be sure that worms can be our gardening assistants beyond Earth, researchers need to be positive that they can survive the soil and keep functioning as they do in your backyard.
By the way, donate to Worms for Mars and you could get some geeky-cool swag like a poster showing hypothetical life on Mars or a kitchen apron printed with a diagram of the experiment. No word on whether it will make you lose your appetite.