The application of systems biology tools holds promise for rational industrial microbial strain development. Here, we characterize a Zymomonas mobilis mutant (AcR) demonstrating sodium acetate tolerance that has potential importance in biofuel development. The genome changes associated with AcR are determined using microarray comparative genome sequencing (CGS) and 454-pyrosequencing. Sanger sequencing analysis is employed to validate genomic differences and to investigate CGS and 454-pyrosequencing limitations. Transcriptomics, genetic data and growth studies indicate that over-expression of the sodium-proton antiporter gene nhaA confers the elevated AcR sodium acetate tolerance phenotype. nhaA over-expression mostly confers enhanced sodium (Na(+)) tolerance and not acetate (Ac(-)) tolerance, unless both ions are present in sufficient quantities. NaAc is more inhibitory than potassium and ammonium acetate for Z. mobilis and the combination of elevated Na(+) and Ac(-) ions exerts a synergistic inhibitory effect for strain ZM4. A structural model for the NhaA sodium-proton antiporter is constructed to provide mechanistic insights. We demonstrate that Saccharomyces cerevisiae sodium-proton antiporter genes also contribute to sodium acetate, potassium acetate, and ammonium acetate tolerances. The present combination of classical and systems biology tools is a paradigm for accelerated industrial strain improvement and combines benefits of few a priori assumptions with detailed, rapid, mechanistic studies.