The primary structure of a fatty-acid-binding protein (FABP) isolated from the liver of the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) was determined by high-performance tandem mass spectrometry (employing multichannel array detection) and Edman degradation. Shark liver FABP consists of 132 amino acids with an acetylated N-terminal valine. The chemical molecular mass of the intact protein determined by electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (Mr = 15124 +/- 2.5) was in good agreement with that calculated from the amino acid sequence (Mr = 15121.3). The amino acid sequence of shark liver FABP displays significantly greater similarity to the FABP expressed in mammalian heart, peripheral nerve myelin and adipose tissue (61-53% sequence similarity) than to the FABP expressed in mammalian liver (22% similarity). Phylogenetic trees derived from the comparison of the shark liver FABP amino acid sequence with the members of the mammalian fatty-acid/retinoid-binding protein gene family indicate the initial divergence of an ancestral gene into two major subfamilies: one comprising the genes for mammalian liver FABP and gastrotropin, the other comprising the genes for mammalian cellular retinol-binding proteins I and II, cellular retinoic-acid-binding protein myelin P2 protein, adipocyte FABP, heart FABP and shark liver FABP, the latter having diverged from the ancestral gene that ultimately gave rise to the present day mammalian heart-FABP, adipocyte FABP and myelin P2 protein sequences. The sequence for intestinal FABP from the rat could be assigned to either subfamily, depending on the approach used for phylogenetic tree construction, but clearly diverged at a relatively early evolutionary time point. Indeed, sequences proximately ancestral or closely related to mammalian intestinal FABP, liver FABP, gastrotropin and the retinoid-binding group of proteins appear to have arisen prior to the divergence of shark liver FABP and should therefore also be present in elasmobranchs. The presence in shark liver of an FABP which differs substantially in primary structure from mammalian liver FABP, while being closely related to the FABP expressed in mammalian heart muscle, peripheral nerve myelin and adipocytes, opens a further dimension regarding the question of the existence of structure-dependent and tissue-specific specialization of FABP function in lipid metabolism.