Rapid fluctuation of environmental conditions can impose severe stress upon living organisms. Surviving such episodes of stress requires a rapid acclimation response, e.g., by transcriptional and post-transcriptional mechanisms. Persistent change of the environmental context, however, requires longer-term adaptation at the genetic level. Fast-growing unicellular aquatic eukaryotes enable analysis of adaptive responses at the genetic level in a laboratory setting. In this study, we applied continuous cold stress (28°C) to the thermoacidophile red alga G. sulphuraria, which is 14°C below its optimal growth temperature of 42°C. Cold stress was applied for more than 100 generations to identify components that are critical for conferring thermal adaptation. After cold exposure for more than 100 generations, the cold-adapted samples grew ∼30% faster than the starting population. Whole-genome sequencing revealed 757 variants located on 429 genes (6.1% of the transcriptome) encoding molecular functions involved in cell cycle regulation, gene regulation, signaling, morphogenesis, microtubule nucleation, and transmembrane transport. CpG islands located in the intergenic region accumulated a significant number of variants, which is likely a sign of epigenetic remodeling. We present 20 candidate genes and three putative cis-regulatory elements with various functions most affected by temperature. Our work shows that natural selection toward temperature tolerance is a complex systems biology problem that involves gradual reprogramming of an intricate gene network and deeply nested regulators.
Keywords: Cyanidiales; cold stress; extremophile; microevolution; red algae; temperature adaptation.