Cellulosic biomass is an abundant and underused substrate for biofuel production. The inability of many microbes to metabolize the pentose sugars abundant within hemicellulose creates specific challenges for microbial biofuel production from cellulosic material. Although engineered strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae can use the pentose xylose, the fermentative capacity pales in comparison with glucose, limiting the economic feasibility of industrial fermentations. To better understand xylose utilization for subsequent microbial engineering, we sequenced the genomes of two xylose-fermenting, beetle-associated fungi, Spathaspora passalidarum and Candida tenuis. To identify genes involved in xylose metabolism, we applied a comparative genomic approach across 14 Ascomycete genomes, mapping phenotypes and genotypes onto the fungal phylogeny, and measured genomic expression across five Hemiascomycete species with different xylose-consumption phenotypes. This approach implicated many genes and processes involved in xylose assimilation. Several of these genes significantly improved xylose utilization when engineered into S. cerevisiae, demonstrating the power of comparative methods in rapidly identifying genes for biomass conversion while reflecting on fungal ecology.