Biologist Shelley Copley, of the University of Colorado, Boulder and the NASA Astrobiology Institute at MIT and Georgia Tech (formerly the University of Montana), was able to watch a microevolutionary process take place among certain strains of E. coli, when her research team deleted the genes necessary for producing important enzymes and observed how generations of the bacteria developed new ways to survive and replicate.

As Copley explained during her presentation at the 2nd American Society for Microbiology Conference on Experimental Microbial Evolution, the bacteria adapted by turning to “promiscuous enzymes,” enzymes that can switch from their specialty function to create new workaround reaction pathways to achieve the same end as the missing enzyme.

The story was reported in Science News. The results of the research provide a possible glimpse into how these functionally flexible enzymes could play a part in the early evolution of life.