The European Space Agency's Darwin and NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) are among the most challenging space science missions ever considered. Their principal objective is to detect Earth-like planets around nearby stars and to characterize their atmospheres. Darwin and TPF-I are currently conceived as nulling interferometers with free-flying telescopes. Within the frame of the Darwin program, the ESA and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), supported by European industries and scientific institutes, have performed two parallel Phase A studies of a ground-based nulling interferometry experiment (GENIE) at the site of ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) in Paranal, Chile. GENIE will demonstrate several key technologies required for the Darwin mission. Its science objectives include the detection and characterization of dust disks and low-mass companions around nearby stars. These studies have established detailed instrumental designs, in which GENIE will operate in the L' band around 3.8 microns as a single Bracewell nulling or constructive interferometer, using either two Auxiliary or two Unit Telescopes. The studies were supported by detailed numerical simulations which indicated the possibility of detection and low-resolution spectroscopy in nulling mode of extra-solar giant planets (EGPs) with atmospheric temperatures down to 700 K, provided that a proper calibration of instrumental effects is applied. Detection of circumstellar exo-zodiacal (EZ) dust clouds is possible down to 0.5 mJy, with interesting prospects for the characterization of planet-forming disks.