Three MADS-box cDNA clones and two corresponding genomic sequences (gDNAs) have been isolated from the bryophyte Physcomitrella patens and sequenced. Our findings indicate that the genes may be expressed in a tissue- or age-specific manner, and that expression of one of them is regulated by an alternative splicing mechanism. Conceptual translation of the clones reveals that the encoded MADS-domain proteins have the typical plant-domain pattern (MIKC). Additionally, there is a high degree of conservation of intron number and positions between angiosperm MADS-box genes and the moss loci. These observations confirm the homology of moss and higher plant MADS-box genes. We conclude that the MIKC pattern evolved in MADS-box genes after the separation of the plant lineage from that of fungi and animals, and that it must have been present in the common ancestor of mosses, ferns and seed plants. Therefore it evolved at least 400 million yr ago. Phylogenetic analysis of a large subset of the sequenced plant MADS-box genes, incorporating those from P. patens, indicates that the bryophyte genes are not orthologues of spermatophyte genes belonging to any of the well recognized higher plant gene subfamilies. This conclusion accords well with reports that the known fern MADS-box genes also comprise subfamilies distinct from those of higher plants. Therefore we tentatively propose that the gene duplication and diversification events that created the MADS-box gene subfamilies, discernible in extant angiosperm and other spermatophyte groups, occurred after separation of the moss and fern lineages from the lineage which produced the higher plants.