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What Is Microevolution?

Microevolution occurs at the population level. A population is an interbreeding group of individuals of the same species.

Evolution is the change, over successive generations, in the genetic composition of a population. When thinking about evolution, it is common to imagine changes on a grand scale, such as the evolution of modern birds from ancient dinosaurs. This is macroevolution—evolutionary change at or above the level of species. The origin of vertebrates and the increasing diversity of flowering plants are examples of macroevolution. These patterns emerge over long periods of geologic time. However, each dramatic example of large-scale macroevolution emerged from repeated action on a much smaller scale.

Microevolution, on the other hand, is a change in allele (or gene) frequencies within a population from one generation to the next. A population is an interbreeding group of individuals of the same species. Microevolution takes place on a much smaller time scale than macroevolution—generally, between two generations. Evidence of microevolution is commonly found in the resistance of weeds to herbicides, pathogens to medicines, and pests to pesticides. For example, a population of bacteria may have a mixture of some gene versions that are resistant to an antibiotic and some that are not. When the antibiotic is introduced, those that are resistant will survive, with natural selection favoring those gene versions. In a generation or two (which, for bacteria, can occur in a matter of minutes), a population of bacteria will evolve into only those that are resistant.

Although survival and reproduction of individuals determines evolution, individuals themselves cannot evolve. Continuing with the example of a population of bacteria, no individual bacterium that was not resistant to the antibiotic evolves into one that is. Those that are not resistant perish. Those that are resistant survive and reproduce, passing on the genetic variation that is resistant. Over the course of a couple of generations, only resistant bacteria remain in the population. The population is the smallest unit of evolution.

Macroevolution Begins with Microevolution

Macroevolution describes large-scale changes affecting one or more species. In contrast, microevolution describes changes within a single population of one species. Macroevolution depends on the same mechanisms of microevolution occurring over a long period of time. For example, millions of years of microevolution formed traits within the whale lineage that allowed a return to the sea. Macroevolution also occurred because new species were formed along the way.