TEM-1 β-lactamase is one of the most well-known antibiotic resistance determinants around. It confers resistance to penicillins and early cephalosporins and has shown an astonishing functional plasticity in response to the introduction of novel drugs derived from these antibiotics. Since its discovery in the 1960s, over 170 variants of TEM-1 - with different amino acid sequences and often resistance phenotypes - have been isolated in hospitals and clinics worldwide. Next to this well-documented 'natural' evolution, the in vitro evolution of TEM-1 has been the focus of attention of many experimental studies. In this review, we compare the natural and laboratory evolution of TEM-1 in order to address the question to what extent the evolution of antibiotic resistance can be repeated, and hence might have been predicted, under laboratory conditions. We also use the comparison to gain an insight into the adaptive relevance of hitherto uncharacterized substitutions present in clinical isolates and to predict substitutions not yet observed in nature. Based on new structural insights, we review what is known about substitutions in TEM-1 that contribute to the extension of its resistance phenotype. Finally, we address the clinical relevance of TEM alleles during the past decade, which has been dominated by the emergence of another β-lactamase, CTX-M.