Background: Saccharomyces yeasts are an important model system in many areas of biological research. Very little is known about their ecology and evolution in the wild, but interest in this natural history is growing. Extensive work with lab strains in the last century uncovered the Saccharomyces life cycle. When nutrient limited, a diploid yeast cell will form four haploid spores encased in a protective outer layer called the ascus. Confinement within the ascus is thought to enforce mating between products of the same meiotic division, minimizing outcrossing in this stage of the life cycle.
Methodology/principal findings: Using a set of S. cerevisiae and S. paradoxus strains isolated from woodlands in North America, we set up trials in which pairs of asci were placed in contact with one another and allowed to germinate. We observed outcrossing in approximately 40% of the trials, and multiple outcrossing events in trials with three asci in contact with each other. When entire populations of densely crowded asci germinated, approximately 10-25% of the resulting colonies were outcrossed. There were differences between the species with S. cerevisiae having an increased tendency to outcross in mass mating conditions.
Conclusions/significance: Our results highlight the potential for random mating between spores in natural strains, even in the presence of asci. If this type of mating does occur in nature and it is between close relatives, then a great deal of mating behavior may be undetectable from genome sequences.