Horizontally acquired genes typically function as autonomous units conferring new abilities when introduced into different species. However, we reasoned that proteins preexisting in an organism might constrain the functionality of a horizontally acquired gene product if it operates on an ancestral pathway. Here, we determine how the horizontally acquired pmrD gene product activates the ancestral PmrA/PmrB two-component system in Salmonella enterica but not in the closely related bacterium Escherichia coli. The Salmonella PmrD protein binds to the phosphorylated PmrA protein (PmrA-P), protecting it from dephosphorylation by the PmrB protein. This results in transcription of PmrA-dependent genes, including those conferring polymyxin B resistance. We now report that the E. coli PmrD protein can activate the PmrA/PmrB system in Salmonella even though it cannot do it in E. coli, suggesting that these two species differ in an additional component controlling PmrA-P levels. We establish that the E. coli PmrB displays higher phosphatase activity towards PmrA-P than the Salmonella PmrB, and we identified a PmrB subdomain responsible for this property. Replacement of the E. coli pmrB gene with the Salmonella homolog was sufficient to render E. coli resistant to polymyxin B under PmrD-inducing conditions. Our findings provide a singular example whereby quantitative differences in the biochemical activities of orthologous ancestral proteins dictate the ability of a horizontally acquired gene product to confer species-specific traits. And they suggest that horizontally acquired genes can potentiate selection at ancestral loci.