Twelve experimental populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli evolved for 20,000 generations in a defined medium at 37 degrees C. We measured their maximum growth rates across a broad range of temperatures and at several evolutionary time points to quantify the extent to which they became thermal specialists with diminished performance at other temperatures. We also sought to determine whether antagonistic pleiotropy (genetic trade-offs) or mutation accumulation (drift decay) was primarily responsible for any thermal specialization. Populations showed consistent improvement in growth rate at moderate temperatures (27-39 degrees C), but tended to have decreased growth rate at both low (20 degrees C) and high (41-42 degrees C) temperatures. Most loss occurred early in the experiment, when adaptation was most rapid. This dynamic is predicted by antagonistic pleiotropy but not by mutation accumulation. Several populations evolved high mutation rates due to defects in their DNA repair, but they did not subsequently undergo a greater decrease in growth rate at thermal extremes than populations that retained low mutation rates, contrary to the acceleration of decay predicted by mutation accumulation. Antagonistic pleiotropy therefore is more likely to be responsible for the evolution of thermal specialization observed in maximum growth rate.