Dec 04, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Earthworms Can Survive in Martian Soil

Mars is looking more habitable all the time. Well you know, aside from the lethal atmosphere. And the cosmic radiation Martian colonists would be subjected to along the way. And the general soul-crushing inhospitality of the planet itself. Aside from all that, though, Mars would make a pretty sweet new place for us to build all the great stuff we have on Earth: endless parking lots, landfills full of old iPhones, privately-owned prisons, and of course Starbucks franchises. Lots of Starbucks franchises. Is the colonization of Mars realistically possible in our lifetime, though?

home sweet home
Home sweet home.

Getting there isn’t the problem; we already have the rocket technology to get us well past Mars. The question lies in the ability of colonists to actually sustain themselves once safely on the Martian surface. Luckily, several studies published over the past year have given hope to the starry-eyed visionaries who believe we are on the verge of being able to colonize the Red Planet. First, an experiment concluded that potatoes can grow in simulated Martian soil under high-pressure, low-oxygen conditions, lending hope that the starchy staple crop could be grown by Mars colonists.

Mars might not have oxygen, but it's got a whole lotta dirt.

Another study by a team of Dutch scientists found that crops grown in (simulated) Martian soil are safe to eat. Now, a new crowdfunded study by those same scientists at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands claims that earthworms can survive and even reproduce in Martian soil. If confirmed, this could mean that farming on Mars could indeed be a reality.

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Researcher Wieger Wamelink inspects crops grown in simulated Martian soil.

Earthworms provide vital services for soil, helping to aerate soil and break down decaying plant matter into nutrients. While the experiment found that the worms can survive in the soil, worms on Mars will still need to be shielded from the cold and the low atmospheric pressure. Another complicating factor is that due to the lack of wind and water on Mars, grains of Martian soil are much sharper than those on Earth and can harm the worms' bodies and digestive tracts. These problems could be overcome with proper treatment of the soil and enclosures, however. If these studies are confirmed and Martian soil is found to be capable of actually growing crops and sustaining microbes and worms, the possibility of extending humankind to the fourth rock from the Sun seems just a little closer than it did before. Baby steps, earthlings. Baby steps.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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