In what could be an important milestone for future farmers on Mars, two healthy baby worms were recently born in simulated Martian soil. The births took place in an experiment that is helping scientists understand how human settlers might one day grow crops on the Red Planet.
Wieger Wamelink, a biologist at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, is running plant growth experiments in a mixture of NASA-made Martian soil simulants — made from volcanic terrestrial rocks — and pig manure, to which he added live adult worms. University officials said in a statement that the infant worms are the first offspring of adult worms to be born in a Mars soil simulant.
Mars is not a naturally habitable environment for life as we know it, so if humans want to live there long term, Red Planet settlers will have to establish closed ecosystem models. (These are essentially large terrariums where factors like temperature and atmospheric moisture can be controlled.) According to the statement, those ecosystems will ideally utilize available waste materials, including human excrement and dead organic matter. That's where the worms come in.
Worms begin the breakdown of organic matter, which is continued by bacteria. That leads to the release into the soil of such vital plant nutrients as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, according to the statement from Wageningen University and Research Center.