The Experimental Study of Bacterial Evolution and Its Implications for the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Biology

J Hist Biol. 2018 Jun;51(2):319-354. doi: 10.1007/s10739-017-9493-8.


Since the 1940s, microbiologists, biochemists and population geneticists have experimented with the genetic mechanisms of microorganisms in order to investigate evolutionary processes. These evolutionary studies of bacteria and other microorganisms gained some recognition from the standard-bearers of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology, especially Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ledyard Stebbins. A further period of post-synthesis bacterial evolutionary research occurred between the 1950s and 1980s. These experimental analyses focused on the evolution of population and genetic structure, the adaptive gain of new functions, and the evolutionary consequences of competition dynamics. This large body of research aimed to make evolutionary theory testable and predictive, by giving it mechanistic underpinnings. Although evolutionary microbiologists promoted bacterial experiments as methodologically advantageous and a source of general insight into evolution, they also acknowledged the biological differences of bacteria. My historical overview concludes with reflections on what bacterial evolutionary research achieved in this period, and its implications for the still-developing modern synthesis.

Keywords: Bacterial population biology; Evolutionary biology; Microbial experimental evolution; Modern synthesis.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Biochemistry / history*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetics, Population / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Microbiology / history*
  • Selection, Genetic*

Personal name as subject

  • Kimball Chase Atwood III
  • Francis J Ryan