We examined the distribution of synonymous and non-synonymous changes in 12 protein-coding genes of natural populations of cyanobacteria to infer changes in gene functionality. By comparing mutation distributions within and across species using the McDonald–Kreitman test, we found data sets to contain evidence for purifying selection (hetR of Trichodesmium, nifH of Cylindrospermopsis raceborskii and rpoC1 of Anabaena lemmermannii) and positive selection (kaiC of Microcoleus chthonoplastes and rbcX of Anabaena and Aphanizomenon sp.). Other genes from the same set of clonal isolates (petB and rbcL in M. chthonoplastes and Anabaena/Aphanizomenon, respectively) did not harbour evidence for either form of selection. The results of branch models of codon evolution agreed fully with the results of the McDonald–Kreitman test in terms of significance and absolute value of the dN/dS estimates. The high frequency of gene-specific mutation patterns and their association with branches that separate closely related cyanobacterial genera suggest that evolutionary tests are suited to uncover gene-specific selective differentiation in cyanobacterial genomes. At the same time, given the lack of information about the history of cyanobacteria, analysis of larger numbers of protein-coding genes of clonal cyanobacterial isolates will produce more detailed pictures of the effects of natural selection.