Many familiar traits in the natural world-from lions' manes to the longevity of bristlecone pine trees-arose in the distant past, and have long since fixed in their respective species. A key challenge in evolutionary genetics is to figure out how and why species-defining traits have come to be. We used the thermotolerance growth advantage of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae over its sister species Saccharomyces paradoxus as a model for addressing these questions. Analyzing loci at which the S. cerevisiae allele promotes thermotolerance, we detected robust evidence for positive selection, including amino acid divergence between the species and conservation within S. cerevisiae populations. Since such signatures were particularly strong at the chromosome segregation gene ESP1, we used this locus as a case study for focused mechanistic follow-up. Experiments revealed that, in culture at high temperature, the S. paradoxus ESP1 allele conferred a qualitative defect in biomass accumulation and cell division relative to the S. cerevisiae allele. Only genetic divergence in the ESP1 coding region mattered phenotypically, with no functional impact detectable from the promoter. Together, these data support a model in which an ancient ancestor of S. cerevisiae, under selection to boost viability at high temperature, acquired amino acid variants at ESP1 and many other loci, which have been constrained since then. Complex adaptations of this type hold promise as a paradigm for interspecies genetics, especially in deeply diverged traits that may have taken millions of years to evolve.
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