I sometimes get email from people asking, in one way or another, whether our long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli provides evidence of evolution writ large – new species, new information, or something of that sort. I try to answer these questions by providing some examples of what we’ve seen change, and by putting the LTEE into context. Here’s one such email:
Hi Professor Lenski,
I have a quick question. I’m asking because I am having a discussion with someone who is skeptical of evolution. The question is: Over the 50,000 generations of e-coli has any of the e-coli evolved into something else or is it still e-coli?
I am a non-religious person who likes to think of myself as an adherent to science but I am not sure how to respond to my skeptic-friend.
And here’s my reply:
50,000 generations, for these bacteria, took place in a matter of ~25 years. They have changed in many (mostly small) ways, and remained the same in many other respects, just as one expects from evolutionary theory. Although these are somewhat technical articles, I have attached 3 PDFs that describe some of the changes that we have seen.
Wiser et al. (2013) document the process of adaptation by natural selection, which has led to the improved competitive fitness of the bacteria relative to their ancestors.
Blount et al. (2012) describe the genetic changes that led one population (out of the 12 in the experiment) to evolve a new capacity to grow on an alternative source of carbon and energy.
Tenaillon et al. (2016) describe changes that have occurred across all 12 populations in their genomes (DNA sequences), which have caused all of them to become more and more dissimilar to their ancestor as time marches on.
Although these articles were written for other scientists, they make three big points that I hope almost anyone with an open mind can understand.
- We see organisms adapting to their environment, as evidenced by increased competitiveness relative to their ancestors.
- Against this backdrop of more or less gradual improvement, we occasionally see much bigger changes.
- And at the level of their genomes, we see the bacteria becoming more and more different from their ancestors.
In these fundamental respects, evolution in these flasks works in much the same way that evolution works in nature. Of course, the scales of time and space are vastly greater in nature than they are in the lab, and natural environments are far more complex and variable than is the simple one in the LTEE. But the core processes of mutation, drift, and natural selection give rise to evolution in the LTEE, just as they do (along with sex and other forms of gene exchange) in nature.