Scientists are raising worms in space soil in hopes of bringing Earthly life to Mars

Scientists are raising worms in space soil in hopes of bringing Earthly life to Mars
Scientists in the Netherlands have successfully bred Earth worms in Martian soil, meaning that humans may be able to eat space-grown vegetables and dispose of waste in the future. Wieger Wamelink/YouTube
Scientists in the Netherlands have successfully bred Earth worms in Martian soil, meaning that humans may be able to eat space-grown vegetables and dispose of waste in the future. Wieger Wamelink/YouTube

If the 20th century was a race to the moon, then the next sprint is certainly to Mars. NASA is hoping to bring humans to the red planet by the 2030s. Mars One — a private venture owned by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp — wants to create a space colony there. Elon Musk’s SpaceX hopes to make its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022 — a first step to creating a “self-sustaining civilization.”

But humans aren’t the only form of Earthly life scientists want to send to Mars. Now, researchers are interested in beaming up worms, too.

Wieger Wamelink, a biologist at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University and Research Centre, is using synthetic Martian soil made from space rocks and pig poop to simulate breeding worms on Mars.

A video published by Wieger Wamelink shows the pilot experiment with earthworms and plants successfully grown in Martian soil. Wieger Wamelink/YouTube

It sounds silly, but it could be a huge step for these so-called space colonies. After all, thriving worms would mean thriving crops: Worms recycle organic matter in the soil, dig holes that pave the way for water to reach plants and release nutrients the crops need to survive. Plus, human waste on Mars will have to go somewhere — and the soil will probably be the best place, researchers say.

“The manure stimulated growth [in the experiment], especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active,” Wamelink said in a release. “However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant.”

Martian soil is photographed by Curiosity, a NASA Mars rover, making its way across a sand dune on the red planet in February 2014.
Martian soil is photographed by Curiosity, a NASA Mars rover, making its way across a sand dune on the red planet in February 2014. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The worm experiments have been going on since 2013, but they’re far from over. Wamelink and his colleagues are trying to raise 10,000 euros to continue their work. A crowdfunding campaign has gotten them more than halfway there over the course of two months.

Scientists are interested in monitoring the worms’ health and seeing how well they survive in moon soil, too. According to their crowdfunding campaign, both Mars and the moon have “sharp soil edges” that “may seriously harm the worm’s gut.” But the good news is that their findings could also help researchers figure out how to grow plants in deserts on Earth, since Mars has a similar climate.

Growing food in space has been of interest to researchers around the world for several years now. In 2016, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida announced a partnership with the Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute to create a “Martian garden,” too. Though the study did not include worms, scientists planted 30 seeds in test tubes of fake Martian soil and managed to nurse about half the batch into edible crops.

Plants were successfully grown in a previous NASA experiment using synthetic Martian soil.
Plants were successfully grown in a previous NASA experiment using synthetic Martian soil. Dimitri Gerondidakis/NASA

There’s a long way to go, but scientists at Wageningen so far believe they can grow beans, peas, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, rucola, carrots and garden cress on Mars. Other plants — such as spinach — have not been responding to experiments, the study’s release stated.

It’s no Sweet Green, but it looks like the Martian salad might be the way of the future.