Why, when, and how did yeast evolve alcoholic fermentation?
The origin of modern fruits brought to microbial communities an abundant source of rich food based on simple sugars. Yeasts, especially Saccharomyces cerevisiae, usually become the predominant group in these niches. One of the most prominent and unique features and likely a winning trait of these yeasts is their ability to rapidly convert sugars to ethanol at both anaerobic and aerobic conditions. Why, when, and how did yeasts remodel their carbon metabolism to be able to accumulate ethanol under aerobic conditions and at the expense of decreasing biomass production? We hereby review the recent data on the carbon metabolism in Saccharomycetaceae species and attempt to reconstruct the ancient environment, which could promote the evolution of alcoholic fermentation. We speculate that the first step toward the so-called fermentative lifestyle was the exploration of anaerobic niches resulting in an increased metabolic capacity to degrade sugar to ethanol. The strengthened glycolytic flow had in parallel a beneficial effect on the microbial competition outcome and later evolved as a “new” tool promoting the yeast competition ability under aerobic conditions. The basic aerobic alcoholic fermentation ability was subsequently “upgraded” in several lineages by evolving additional regulatory steps, such as glucose repression in the S. cerevisiae clade, to achieve a more precise metabolic control.