Earthworms are capable of reproducing in a Mars-like environment, according to a new study, a crucial discovery that aids research into growing crops on Mars. The discovery was made when biologist Wieger Wamelink found a pair of young worms in a simulated Mars soil sample from NASA; only adult worms had been placed in the soil, indicating they had successfully reproduced in the sample.
NASA has a set goal of getting humans to Mars, but the process is a tricky one. Getting astronauts to the Red Planet is only half the battle; once there, they’ll need a way to sustain themselves, and that includes eating. Growing crops on the planet is the best solution, but whether that will be possible isn’t yet determined.
Researchers around the world have worked on solving the problem, doing everything from simulated growth studies to developing concepts for sophisticated greenhouses. The work has been successful, though much remains to be done. For example, a study involving potatoes resulted in successfully sprouting a potato plant called “unique” in a simulated Mars environment.
Worms are an important part of growing plants, as they’re involved with breaking down organic matter; this makes them a key part of potential future crops systems on Mars. The worms weren’t able to reproduce in the Mars soil on their own, however; manure was added to the soil mixture, a variant of the manure that may one day be used as fertilizer for crops on Mars.
The manure was able to alter the Mars soil substantially enough to allow for earthworm reproduction, and that’s an exciting turn of events. Other experiments have successfully grown various common and crucial crops in Mars-like soils, including tomatoes and beans. Researchers say the big exception to the expanding success is growing spinach, which has proven unsuccessful so far.