Carbonic anhydrases catalyze the reversible hydration of CO(2) [CO(2)+H(2)Oright harpoon over left harpoon HCO(3)(-)+H(+)]. Since the discovery of this zinc (Zn) metalloenzyme in erythrocytes over 65 years ago, carbonic anhydrase has not only been found in virtually all mammalian tissues but is also abundant in plants and green unicellular algae. The enzyme is important to many eukaryotic physiological processes such as respiration, CO(2) transport and photosynthesis. Although ubiquitous in highly evolved organisms from the Eukarya domain, the enzyme has received scant attention in prokaryotes from the Bacteria and Archaea domains and has been purified from only five species since it was first identified in Neisseria sicca in 1963. Recent work has shown that carbonic anhydrase is widespread in metabolically diverse species from both the Archaea and Bacteria domains indicating that the enzyme has a more extensive and fundamental role in prokaryotic biology than previously recognized. A remarkable feature of carbonic anhydrase is the existence of three distinct classes (designated alpha, beta and gamma) that have no significant sequence identity and were invented independently. Thus, the carbonic anhydrase classes are excellent examples of convergent evolution of catalytic function. Genes encoding enzymes from all three classes have been identified in the prokaryotes with the beta and gamma classes predominating. All of the mammalian isozymes (including the 10 human isozymes) belong to the alpha class; however, only nine alpha class carbonic anhydrase genes have thus far been found in the Bacteria domain and none in the Archaea domain. The beta class is comprised of enzymes from the chloroplasts of both monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous plants as well as enzymes from phylogenetically diverse species from the Archaea and Bacteria domains. The only gamma class carbonic anhydrase that has thus far been isolated and characterized is from the methanoarchaeon Methanosarcina thermophila. Interestingly, many prokaryotes contain carbonic anhydrase genes from more than one class; some even contain genes from all three known classes. In addition, some prokaryotes contain multiple genes encoding carbonic anhydrases from the same class. The presence of multiple carbonic anhydrase genes within a species underscores the importance of this enzyme in prokaryotic physiology; however, the role(s) of this enzyme is still largely unknown. Even though most of the information known about the function(s) of carbonic anhydrase primarily relates to its role in cyanobacterial CO(2) fixation, the prokaryotic enzyme has also been shown to function in cyanate degradation and the survival of intracellular pathogens within their host. Investigations into prokaryotic carbonic anhydrase have already led to the identification of a new class (gamma) and future research will undoubtedly reveal novel functions for carbonic anhydrase in prokaryotes.