Too much of a good thing: the unique and repeated paths toward copper adaptation

Genetics. 2015 Feb;199(2):555-71. doi: 10.1534/genetics.114.171124. Epub 2014 Dec 17.


Copper is a micronutrient essential for growth due to its role as a cofactor in enzymes involved in respiration, defense against oxidative damage, and iron uptake. Yet too much of a good thing can be lethal, and yeast cells typically do not have tolerance to copper levels much beyond the concentration in their ancestral environment. Here, we report a short-term evolutionary study of Saccharomyces cerevisiae exposed to levels of copper sulfate that are inhibitory to the initial strain. We isolated and identified adaptive mutations soon after they arose, reducing the number of neutral mutations, to determine the first genetic steps that yeast take when adapting to copper. We analyzed 34 such strains through whole-genome sequencing and by assaying fitness within different environments; we also isolated a subset of mutations through tetrad analysis of four lines. We identified a multilayered evolutionary response. In total, 57 single base-pair mutations were identified across the 34 lines. In addition, gene amplification of the copper metallothionein protein, CUP1-1, was rampant, as was chromosomal aneuploidy. Four other genes received multiple, independent mutations in different lines (the vacuolar transporter genes VTC1 and VTC4; the plasma membrane H+-ATPase PMA1; and MAM3, a protein required for normal mitochondrial morphology). Analyses indicated that mutations in all four genes, as well as CUP1-1 copy number, contributed significantly to explaining variation in copper tolerance. Our study thus finds that evolution takes both common and less trodden pathways toward evolving tolerance to an essential, but highly toxic, micronutrient.

Keywords: CUP1; Saccharomyces cerevisiae; aneuploidy; copper tolerance; fitness; genetic basis of adaptation; parallel adaptation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological*
  • Copper / metabolism*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Haplotypes
  • Mutation
  • Phenotype
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / physiology*
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins / genetics
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins / metabolism
  • Selection, Genetic


  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins
  • Copper