Different species are usually thought to have specific adaptations, which allow them to occupy different ecological niches. But recent neutral ecology theory suggests that species diversity can simply be the result of random sampling, due to finite population sizes and limited dispersal. Neutral models predict that species are not necessarily adapted to specific niches, but are functionally equivalent across a range of habitats. Here, we evaluate the ecology of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, one of the most important microbial species in human history. The artificial collection, concentration and fermentation of large volumes of fruit for alcohol production produce an environment in which S. cerevisiae thrives, and therefore it is assumed that fruit is the ecological niche that S. cerevisiae inhabits and has adapted to. We find very little direct evidence that S. cerevisiae is adapted to fruit, or indeed to any other specific niche. We propose instead a neutral nomad model for S. cerevisiae, which we believe should be used as the starting hypothesis in attempting to unravel the ecology of this important microbe.
Keywords: Crabtree effect; adaptation; fermentation; fruit; natural history; neutral ecology; niche.
© FEMS 2015.