The thermal environment that organisms experience can affect many aspects of their phenotype. As global temperatures become more unpredictable, it is imperative that we understand the molecular mechanisms by which organisms respond to variable, and often transient, thermal environments. Beyond deciphering the mechanisms through which organisms respond to temperature, we must also appreciate the underlying variation in temperature-dependent processes, as this variation is essential for understanding the potential to adapt to changing climates. In this Commentary, we use temperature-dependent sex determination as an example to explore the mechanistic processes underlying the development of temperature-sensitive phenotypes. We synthesize the current literature on how variable thermal conditions affect these processes and address factors that may limit or allow organisms to respond to variable environments. From these examples, we posit a framework for how the field might move forward in a more systematic way to address three key questions: (1) which genes directly respond to temperature-sensitive changes in protein function and which genes are downstream, indirect responders?; (2) how long does it take different proteins and genes to respond to temperature?; and (3) are the experimental temperature manipulations relevant to the climate the organism experiences or to predicted climate change scenarios? This approach combines mechanistic questions (questions 1 and 2) with ecologically relevant conditions (question 3), allowing us to explore how organisms respond to transient thermal environments and, thus, cope with climate change.

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