Heat shock induces the synthesis of a set of proteins in Halobacterium marismortui whose molecular sizes correspond to the known major heat shock proteins. By using the polymerase chain reaction and degenerate oligonucleotide primers for conserved regions of the 70-kDa heat shock protein (HSP70) family, we have successfully cloned and sequenced a gene fragment containing the entire coding sequence for HSP70 from H. marismortui. HSP70 from H. marismortui shows between 44 and 47% amino acid identity with various eukaryotic HSP70s and between 51 and 58% identity with its eubacterial and archaebacterial homologs. On the basis of a comparison of all available HSP70 sequences, we have identified a number of unique sequence signatures in this protein family that provide a clear distinction between eukaryotic organisms and prokaryotic organisms (archaebacteria and eubacteria). The archaebacterial (viz., H. marismortui and Methanosarcina mazei) HSP70s have been found to contain all of the signature sequences characteristic of eubacteria (particularly the gram-positive bacteria), which suggests a close evolutionary relationship between these groups. In addition, detailed analyses of HSP70 sequences that we have carried out have revealed a number of additional novel features of the HSP70 protein family. These include (i) the presence of an insertion of about 25 to 27 amino acids in the N-terminal quadrants of all known eukaryotic and prokaryotic HSP70s except those from archaebacteria and the gram-positive group of bacteria, (ii) significant sequence similarity in HSP70 regions comprising its first and second quadrants from organisms lacking the above insertion, (iii) highly significant similarity between a protein, MreB, of Escherichia coli and the N-terminal half of HSP70s, (iv) significant sequence similarity between the N-terminal quadrant of HSP70 (from gram-positive bacteria and archaebacteria) and the m-type thioredoxin of plant chloroplasts. To account for these and other observations, a model for the evolution of HSP70 proteins involving gene duplication is proposed. The model proposes that HSP70 from archaebacteria (H. marismortui and M. mazei) and the gram-positive group of bacteria constitutes the ancestral form of the protein and that all other HSP70s (viz., other eubacteria as well as eukaryotes) containing the insert have evolved from this ancient protein.