Unicellular fungi thrive in diverse niches around the world, and many of these niches present unique and stressful challenges that must be contended with by their inhabitants. Numerous studies have investigated the genomic expression responses to environmental stress in ‘model’ ascomycete fungi, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Candida albicans and Schizosaccharomyces pombe. This review presents a comparative-genomics perspective on the environmental stress response, a common response to diverse stresses. Implications for the role of this response, based on its presence or absence in fungi from disparate ecological niches, are discussed. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.