Antimicrobials were first introduced into medical practice a little over 60 years ago and since that time resistant strains of bacteria have arisen in response to the selective pressure of their use. This review uses the paradigm of the evolution and spread of beta-lactamases and in particular beta-lactamases active against antimicrobials used to treat Gram-negative infections. The emergence and evolution particularly of CTX-M extended-spectrum beta-lactamases (ESBLs) is described together with the molecular mechanisms responsible for both primary mutation and horizontal gene transfer. Reference is also made to other significant antibiotic resistance genes, resistance mechanisms in Gram-negative bacteria, such as carbepenamases, and plasmid-mediated fluoroquinolone resistance. The pathogen Staphylococcus aureus is reviewed in detail as an example of a highly successful Gram-positive bacterial pathogen that has acquired and developed resistance to a wide range of antimicrobials. The role of selective pressures in the environment as well as the medical use of antimicrobials together with the interplay of various genetic mechanisms for horizontal gene transfer are considered in the concluding part of this review.