The airways of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) are nearly always infected with many different microorganisms. This environment offers warm, humid and nutrient-rich conditions, but is also stressful owing to frequent antibiotic therapy and the host immune response. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is commonly isolated from the airways of patients with CF, where it most often establishes chronic infections that usually persist for the rest of the lives of the patients. This bacterium is a major cause of mortality and morbidity and has therefore been studied intensely. Here, we discuss how P. aeruginosa evolves from a state of early, recurrent intermittent colonization of the airways of patients with CF to a chronic infection state, and how this process offers opportunities to study bacterial evolution in natural environments. We believe that such studies are valuable not only for our understanding of bacterial evolution but also for the future development of new therapeutic strategies to treat severe chronic infections.