Baby earthworms produced in simulated Martian soil

Plants were grown in the closed ecosystems that would be necessary on Mars.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Dec 06, 2017
A plant-growth experiment using simulated Martian soil created by NASA resulted in the birth of two healthy baby earthworms, suggesting worms could be used in closed ecosystems to grow crops on Mars.

Closed ecosystems are self-contained habitats that provide protection from extreme temperatures, solar radiation, and meteorite impacts. Temperature and atmospheric moisture within these ecosystems can be controlled to provide ideal conditions for plant growth.

Any future human colonies on Mars will have to house both people and plant life in such habitats.

In the experiment, which took place at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, scientists led by biologist Wieger Wamelink combined simulated Martian soil, composed of volcanic Earth rocks, with pig manure, and then added live adult worms to the mixture.

They then placed various flowering plants into the soil and put the plants and soil in pots with water to keep the environment cool.

Worms are important for soil health and plant growth because they consume dead organic matter, which they mix with soil before excreting that matter. Bacteria further break down the worm excrement in a process that releases nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which feed plants.

Additionally, the worms dig tiny tunnels in the soil, which allow air in and improve the soil's structure, helping the plants absorb water.

The two baby worms born in the experiment are the offspring of the adult worms placed in the simulated Martian soil.

"Clearly, the manure stimulated growth, especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active," Wamelink emphasized.

"However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment, when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant."

While this development is a step toward growing plants on Mars, there are still concerns regarding the potential effects of Martian soil on worms.

Because Martian terrain does not experience weathering, its soil has sharp edges that could harm the worms that eat it. Martian soil also contains heavy metals, which could cause the worms additional difficulties.

"Worms for Mars," a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for more worm experiments, plans to conduct further tests to determine whether worms can endure the sharp edges and heavy metals in simulated Moon and Mars soil.

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