Phosphagens are phosphorylated guanidino compounds that are linked to energy state and ATP hydrolysis by corresponding phosphagen kinase reactions: phosphagen + MgADP + H(+) <--> guanidine acceptor + MgATP. Eight different phosphagens (and corresponding phosphagen kinases) are found in the animal kingdom distributed along distinct phylogenetic lines. By far, the creatine phosphate/creatine kinase (CP/CK) system, which is found in the vertebrates and is widely distributed throughout the lower chordates and invertebrates, is the most extensively studied phosphagen system. Phosphagen kinase reactions function in temporal ATP buffering, in regulating inorganic phosphate (Pi) levels, which impacts glycogenolysis and proton buffering, and in intracellular energy transport. Phosphagen kinase reactions show differences in thermodynamic poise, and the phosphagens themselves differ in terms of certain physical properties including intrinsic diffusivity. This review evaluates the distribution of phosphagen systems and tissue-specific expression of certain phosphagens in an evolutionary and functional context. The role of phosphagens in regulation of intracellular Pi levels likely evolved early. Thermodynamic poise of the phosphagen kinase reaction profoundly impacts this capacity. Furthermore, it is hypothesized that the capacity for intracellular targeting of CK evolved early as a means of facilitating energy transport in highly polarized cells and was subsequently exploited for temporal ATP buffering and dynamic roles in metabolic regulation in cells displaying high and variable rates of aerobic energy production.