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Earth Worms Thrive and Reproduce in Martian Soil Simulant

Monday, December 4, 2017 22:57
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Two young worms are the first offspring in a Mars soil experiment at Wageningen University & Research. 

Biologist Wieger Wamelink found them in a Mars soil simulant that he obtained from NASA. At the start he only added adult worms. The experiments are crucial in the study that aims to determine whether people can keep themselves alive at the red planet by growing their own crops on Mars soils.
NASA looked for soil that closely resembles Mars and moon soil. The Mars soil used at Wageningen in their experiments comes from a volcano on Hawaii and the moon soil from a desert near Flagstaff in Arizona. They cleaned it and used a big roller to roll over the moon soil to make it extra dusty, as it is on the moon.

To feed future humans on Mars a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem is a necessity. Worms will play a crucial role in this system as they break down and recycle dead organic matter. The poop and pee of the (human) Martian will also have to be used to fertilize the soil, but for practical and safety reasons researchers are presently using pig slurry.

Credit: Wieger Wamelink

They have since been observing the growth of rucola (rocket) in Mars soil simulant provided by NASA to which worms and slurry have been added. ‘Clearly the manure stimulated growth, especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active. However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant’, said Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen University & Research.

Experiment, which resulted in various flowering plants, especially on Mars soil stimulant. The pots were put in water to keep the soil, containing the earthworms, cool. They enjoy 15 degrees, while the plants prefer 20 degrees. Source: Wieger Wamelink


‘The positive effect of adding manure was not unexpected’, added Wamelink, ‘but we were surprised that it makes Mars soil simulant outperform Earth silver sand’. Researchers added organic matter from earlier experiments to both sands. They added the manure to a sample of the pots and then, after germination of the rucola, they added the worms. The result: pots with all possible combinations with the exception of organic matter which was added to all of the pots.

Wieger Wamelink
Q&A with Wieger Wamelink – Mars and moon soil researcher
Credit: Wageningen University

Worms are very important for a healthy soil, not only on Earth but also in future indoor gardens on Mars or the moon. They thrive on dead organic matter such as old plant remains, which they eat, chew and mix with soil before they excrete it. This poo still contains organic matter that is broken down further by bacteria, thus releasing nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium for use by the plants. By digging burrows the worms also aerate and improve the structure of the soil, making watering the plants more effective.

The latter proved to be very important in earlier experiments where water would not easily penetrate the soil. Wamelink confirmed that: ’the application of worms will solve this problem’.

Feeding humans

To feed the future humans living on Mars or the moon the project Food for Mars and Moon aims to set up a sustainable agricultural system. It is based on the presence of soils and water (in the form of ice) on both Mars and the moon, and for the Earth-based research we are using soil simulants delivered by NASA. The simulants originate from a volcano in Hawaii (Mars) and a desert in Arizona (moon).

Maybe this is how the people on Mars will live.
Credit: Wageningen University

The experiments started in 2013. Nowadays we are able to grow over a dozen crops, the only species that has resisted our efforts so far is spinach. However crops such as green beans, peas, radish, tomato, potato, rucola, carrot and garden cress all seem possible. The crops were analysed for heavy metals and also alkaloids to check their safety for human consumption. After passing these tests researchers organized a dinner based on the harvested crops for the people that supported their research via the crowdfunding campaign.



Contacts and sources:
Wieger Wamelink
Wageningen University


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Total 2 comments
  • hansom

    Before we fookup another planet hadn’t we better sort this one out first.

    • DK

      That is an old argument and quite wrong, as far as the planet is concerned we are irrelevant and our stewardship could end tomorrow. What living offworld means is we are saving ourselves from our planet which despite being the only Oasis for life that we know of has always sought to reduce us to worm food.

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