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Add poop and earthworms to the ground: the key to growing food on Mars

It is an independent project of scientists from the Netherlands.

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can people live on mars
can people live on mars

A group of researchers from the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) has discovered that the  worms can thrive and reproduce in a simulated Martian soil developed by NASA.

What we call Martian “soil” is, in fact, sterile dust and rocks. Thus, in order to establish farms on Mars and grow potatoes as Matt Damon did in “The Martian” , in scientific terms, the “soil” must contain elements of organic matter from plants and animals.

Therefore, the scientists added arugula plants, fertilizer in the form of manure and earthworms, to a mixture that simulated to be a Martian plot. They discovered that the worms thrived and that, in addition, they produced their first offspring. This finding is crucial, since these creatures are a crucial factor in making the soil fertile, which means that the first colonizers of Mars could grow food once they are on the red planet.

Martian soil analysis

After NASA’s Curiosity robot  completed its first soil analysis of the red planet in 2012, scientists discovered that the planet’s regolith is an eroded volcanic type very similar to the terrestrial soils found in the Hawaiian Islands. Numerous tests were carried out trying to grow plants of a food nature. The first attempts were not successful, but later they managed to obtain better results with the help of freshly cut grass added to the culture medium.

In 2016, a research group from Wageningen University in the Netherlands successfully cultivated 10 crop species, including tomatoes, rye and radishes, using a simulation of Martian soil to which they added manure and sand samples where they were growing arugula.

When it comes to establishing a  sustainable agricultural ecosystem on Mars, “nothing can be lost, including material from dead plants that we do not eat,” says biologist Wieger Wamelink and leader of the work.

“The worm is part of the small existing cycle of plants, worms, bacteria, fungi, humans and bumblebees.” Worms chew the organic matter, mix it with the soil and excrete it.Thebacteria further break down the organic matter releasing the nutrients for the plants, that has to be returned to the ground and the worms do exactly that, “says Wamelink.

The worms have an important job digging burrows, aerating the soil that helps the water reach the roots, “which is important for the growth of the plants.”

Dozens of crops are already being cultivated in several experiments with Martian soil, including potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, peas, carrots and radishes, however, this was the first time that a team of biologists in the Netherlands used manure.

“That triggered the growth, we know that the addition of organic matter also helps and the work of the worms is also added in. This implies that human feces must be returned to the system and the feces during space travel have to be stored to fertilize the Martian soil, so Mark Watney in ‘the Martian’ was right to add poop to the soil to grow his potatoes, “says Wamelink.

These results raise hopes for our ability to grow vegetables on the red planet in the future.However, there are caveats. Would earthworms survive on Mars? They would need a controlled environment to keep them from freezing cold on this planet, as well as providing them with liquid water and a protective shield for radiation on the surface.

The positive is that all the vegetables grown so far are safe to eat.

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