Determining the molecular basis of enzyme adaptation is central to understanding the evolution of environmental tolerance but is complicated by the fact that not all amino acid differences between ecologically divergent taxa are adaptive. Analysing patterns of nucleotide sequence evolution can potentially guide the investigation of protein adaptation by identifying candidate codon sites on which diversifying selection has been operating. Here, I test whether there is evidence for molecular adaptation of the carbon fixation gene rbcL for a clade of hot spring cyanobacteria in the genus Synechococcus that has diverged in thermotolerance. Amino acid replacements during Synechococcus radiation have resulted in an increase in the number of hydrophobic residues in the RbcLs of more thermotolerant strains. A similar increase in hydrophobicity has been observed for many thermostable proteins. Maximum likelihood models which allow for heterogeneity among codon sites in the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous nucleotide substitutions estimated a class of amino acid sites as a target of positive selection. Depending on the model, a single amino acid site that interacts with a flexible element involved in the opening and closing of the active site was estimated with either low or moderate support to be a member of this class. Site-directed mutagenesis approaches are being explored in order to directly test its adaptive significance.
- Molecular evolution