An evolutionary biologist studies the origins and evolution of life and the relationships among Earth’s diverse organisms. Because evolution and evolutionary theory affects every aspect of biology, evolutionary biologists can focus their research on subjects as diverse as living bacteria, extinct marine arthropods, coral reef fishes, comparative anatomy, biodiversity of insects, and even human history. You do not necessarily need to major in biology to get started in a career in evolutionary biology, but you will eventually need a Master’s or Ph.D. in a physical or natural science, as well as a strong understanding of evolution, to work as a researcher or professor.
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Evolutionary Biologist in Action
Title: Professor, Microbial Ecology, Michigan State University
Education: Ph.D., Zoology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
If you want to observe evolution in action, you must find populations that reproduce quickly. Dr. Richard Lenski, a professor at Michigan State University, has done just that. Dr. Lenski studies populations of E. coli bacteria, which he grows in flasks filled with a sugary broth. These bacteria produce about seven generations each day. Dr. Lenski has now observed more than 30,000 generations of E. coli.
The rapid rate of E. coli reproduction allows Dr. Lenski to watch evolution take place. Dr. Lenski can subject each generation of bacteria to the same environmental stresses, such as food shortages or antibiotics. He can then compare individuals from more recent generations with their ancestors, which he keeps in his laboratory freezer. By comparing generations in this way, Dr. Lenski can study how the population has evolved.
When Dr. Lenski began his research in 1988, watching evolution in action was still new. Now, many evolutionary biologists are following in his footsteps.