The B.1.1.7 variant (also known as Alpha) of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, emerged in the UK in the summer of 2020. The prevalence of this variant increased rapidly owing to an increase in infection and/or transmission efficiency1. The Alpha variant contains 19 nonsynonymous mutations across its viral genome, including 8 substitutions or deletions in the spike protein that interacts with cellular receptors to mediate infection and tropism. Here, using a reverse genetics approach, we show that of the 8 individual spike protein substitutions, only N501Y resulted in consistent fitness gains for replication in the upper airway in a hamster model as well as in primary human airway epithelial cells. The N501Y substitution recapitulated the enhanced viral transmission phenotype of the eight mutations in the Alpha spike protein, suggesting that it is a major determinant of the increased transmission of the Alpha variant. Mechanistically, the N501Y substitution increased the affinity of the viral spike protein for cellular receptors. As suggested by its convergent evolution in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere2,3, our results indicate that N501Y substitution is an adaptive spike mutation of major concern.