Weeds are among the greatest pests of agriculture, causing billions of dollars in crop losses each year. As crop field management practices have changed over the past 12 000 years, weeds have adapted in turn to evade human removal. This evolutionary change can be startlingly rapid, making weeds an appealing system to study evolutionary processes that occur over short periods of time. An understanding of how weeds originate and adapt is needed for successful management; however, relatively little emphasis has been placed on genetically characterizing these systems. Here, we review the current literature on agricultural weed origins and their mechanisms of adaptation. Where possible, we have included examples that have been genetically well characterized. Evidence for three possible, non-mutually exclusive weed origins (from wild species, crop-wild hybrids or directly from crops) is discussed with respect to what is known about the microevolutionary signatures that result from these processes. We also discuss what is known about the genetic basis of adaptive traits in weeds and the range of genetic mechanisms that are responsible. With a better understanding of genetic mechanisms underlying adaptation in weedy species, we can address the more general process of adaptive evolution and what can be expected as we continue to apply selective pressures in agroecosystems around the world.