Journal of Bioeconomics

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 107–124 | Cite as

Experimental evolution of bacteria across 60,000 generations, and what it might mean for economics and human decision-making

  • Richard E. Lenski
  • Terence C. Burnham


Evolutionary biology and economics are both rich in theory and steeped in data, but they also share challenges including the fact that the systems they seek to understand are, in certain respects, unique and not easily manipulated. Nonetheless, both fields have seen growing efforts to provide experimental approaches to address specific issues. Here, we review some results from a 30-year experiment in which 12 populations of bacteria have been evolving for over 60,000 generations to characterize: (i) the time scale of adaptation to new conditions, (ii) the repeatability of evolutionary changes, and (iii) the benefits and costs of specialization. In each case, we speculate on potential connections and implications of these findings for the field of economics. Moreover, both the bacteria in this experiment and people in modern societies live in novel environments, which leads to an evolutionary mismatch between their genes and environments. Regardless of the value of our speculations, we hope this paper stimulates further interest in pursuing experiments in fields that are often viewed as observational and not amenable to experimentation.


Adaptation Decision making Experimental evolution Evolution Evolutionary mismatch Randomness Repeatability Specialization 



The authors dedicate this paper to the memory of their parents, Gerhard and Jean Lenski, and Thomas and Marie Burnham. The LTEE has been supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1451740), the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action (DBI-0939454), the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (MICL02253), and Michigan State University. We thank Mike Travisano for encouraging us to write this paper and for stimulating discussions. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for thoughtful suggestions that helped us improve our paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Chapman UniversityOrangeUSA

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