Guess What? Earthworms Can Survive in Martian Soil

November 29, 2017 – Earthworms can take it and based on the latest reveal, may be destined to help establish gardens for future Martian colonies. Sustainable agriculture is of critical importance to any future human presence on Mars. And that means being able to grow things in Martian soil. And growing things require earthworms. They are major recyclers of organic waste and critical to soil fertility.

So how would we establish suitable soil for crops on Mars. Very much in the same manner that was depicted in the Andy Weir authored novel, The Martian.  A stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, survives on potatoes which germinate in Martian soil fertilized by organic waste (poop) from his fellow astronauts. But Mark didn’t have earthworms which would have made things a lot easier.

The research being done at Wageningen University for the Mars One project has successfully grown vegetables in simulated Martian soil. But could earthworms survive and thrive in this medium? That’s what a team at Wageningen decided to find out. Instead of human excrement to fertilize the soil, the researchers used pig manure. Then they added earthworms.

States Wieger Wamelink, one of the researchers, “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.”

It’s one thing for earthworms to survive in the soil. It’s quite another if they begin propagating. That’s pretty exciting for any future human who chooses to live on Mars.

Simulated Martian soil is turning out to be a pretty good growth medium if you add organic matter (poop). To date, the researchers at Wageningen have grown green beans, peas, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, arugula, carrots and garden cress. If you are a salad lover, you need not worry when you get to Mars. All you’ll need to bring is the Ranch dressing.

An additional note: when we bring earthworms to Mars will we rename them marsworms?


Pots of arugula growing in simulated Martian soil. Image credit: Wieger Wamelink

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery.