Bacteria-Virus Arms Race Provides Rare Window into Rapid and Complex Evolution

As conceived by Charles Darwin in the 1800s, evolution is a slow, gradual process during which species adaptations are inherited incrementally over generations. However, today biologists can see how evolutionary changes unfold on much more accelerated timescales. Rather than the evocative plants and animals of the Galapagos Islands that Darwin studied in forming his theory of evolution, Postdoctoral Scholar Joshua Borin, PhD, and Associate Professor Justin Meyer, PhD, of UC San Diego’s School of Biological Sciences are documenting rapid evolutionary processes in simple laboratory flasks. Drs. Borin and Meyer set bacteria and viruses together in a closed laboratory flask — just two teaspoons large — to study co-evolution in action. As viruses infect their bacterial neighbors, the bacteria evolve new defensive measures to repel the attacks. The viruses then counter these adaptations with their own evolutionary changes that work around the new defensive measures.

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