Microbial Evolution in the Wild

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Science  27 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6080, pp. 422-424
DOI: 10.1126/science.1221822

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Microbial species thrive in every corner of Earth's biosphere. Their rapid growth rates and promiscuous gene swapping provide ample grist for the evolutionary mill over relatively short time spans. In ocean surface waters, for example, microbial doubling times of about 1 day result in an estimated production of around 1030 new cells per year (1). (This number exceeds that of all individual grains of sand on Earth by about 10 orders of magnitude.) These cells are not static entities, but rather the products and perpetuators of dynamic evolutionary processes. But exactly how fast, to what degree, and by what mechanisms, do free-living microbes change and evolve over time in natural settings? On page 462 of this issue, Denef and Banfield (2) report evolutionary rate estimates from free-living microbial species in the wild.