70,000 Generations Later...
For the past 30 years, scientists have been studying over 70,000 generations of E. coli bacteria as they evolve and adapt to their surroundings. E. coli has a short lifespan, which makes it easy to watch multiple generations unfold quickly. In fact, the experiment - started by microbiologist Richard Lenski - is equivalent to watching one million years of human evolution play out in a Petri dish.
Cool, but why? Projects such as this one - referred to as experimental evolution - help scientists understand how species adapt and mutate over time. For example, one of the E. coli generations in Richard Lenski's experiment were suddenly able to munch on molecules that were previously not on the menu. The team analyzed the data from previous generations and were able to track the series of unique mutations that led to that moment. The experiment also helped clarify a few theories on how evolution behaves. Previously, scientists believed that evolution slows down once a species ‘peaks’ in a specific environment. However, the E. coli bacteria have continued to evolve, changing their environment and mutating to fit the new conditions. By studying the evolution of these smaller organisms, scientists can glean insights into how humans have - and will - continue to evolve.
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