We investigated the dynamics of adaptation of the unicellular chlorophyte Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to new and hostile conditions of growth provided by novel carbon substrates in the dark. The experiment was designed to contrast perennially asexual lines with lines that had experienced one or more sexual episodes. All lines were capable of adapting to the novel environment. The sexual lines, however, showed greater adaptation over the course of the experiment, especially in more complex environments. Moreover, the effect of sex on adaptation increased with the number of successive sexual episodes. The time-course of adaptation showed that sex initially caused an increase in the standardized variance of fitness and an initial drop in mean fitness, at least after a second or third sexual episode. These short-term effects were followed by a period of recovery during which the fitness of sexual lines eventually exceeded that of asexual lines. The increase in mean fitness was mirrored by a decrease in the standardized variance of fitness relative to asexuals, suggesting that directional selection used up the variation generated by meiotic recombination and thereby conferred a fitness advantage to the sexual lines. These results support the Weismann-Fisher-Muller hypothesis for the maintenance of sex in natural populations.