Variants of the class I ligase ribozyme, which catalyzes joining of the 3' end of a template bound oligonucleotide to its own 5' end, have been made to evolve in a continuous manner by a simple serial transfer procedure that can be carried out indefinitely. This process was expanded to allow the evolution of ribozymes that catalyze three successive nucleotidyl addition reactions, two template-directed mononucleotide additions followed by RNA ligation. During the development of this behavior, a population of ribozymes was maintained against an overall dilution of more than 10(406). The resulting ribozymes were capable of catalyzing the three-step reaction pathway, with nucleotide addition occurring in either a 5'-->3' or a 3'-->5' direction. This purely chemical system provides a functional model of a multi-step reaction pathway that is undergoing Darwinian evolution.