This article is from the archive of our partner .

Charles Darwin and Mars? Where's the connection? The BBC's Howard Falcon-Lang, talking to ecologist Dave Wilkinson, says it lies in a little-known experiment on an island in the South Atlantic. Darwin apparently came across Ascension Island, a desolate mound of volcanic ash, in 1836. He thought it would be a great site on which to create a "Little England"--an entirely artificial ecosystem. Coincidentally, the Royal Navy also used the island as a "strategic base," but had difficulty procuring fresh water. Thus began, in 1847, a joint enterprise of Darwin's botanist friend Joseph Hooker, the navy, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew:

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

The reason modern ecologist Dave Wilkinson finds this "really exciting" is that these 19th-century folks essentially created their own habitable ecosystem:

Wilkinson thinks that the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. ... "It's a terrible waste that no-one is studying it," remarked Wilkinson at the end of the interview.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to