Serogroup A meningococci of subgroups III, IV-1 and IV-2 are probably descended from a common ancestor that existed in the nineteenth century. The 10.5 kb sequences spanning five distinct chromosomal loci, encoding cell-surface antigens, a secreted protease or housekeeping genes and intergenic regions, were almost identical in strains of those subgroups isolated in 1966, 1966 and 1917 respectively. During the subsequent two to three decades, all of these loci varied as a result of mutation, translocation or import of DNA from unrelated neisseriae. Thus, microevolution occurs frequently in naturally transformable bacteria. Many variants were isolated only once or within a single geographical location and disappeared thereafter. Other variants achieved genetic fixation within months or a few years. The speed with which sequence variation is either eliminated or fixed may reflect sequential bottlenecks associated with epidemic spread and contrasts with the results of phylogenetic analyses from bacteria that do not cause epidemics.