The evolutionary origin of adaptive immune receptors is not understood below the phylogenetic level of the jawed vertebrates. We describe here a strategy for the selective cloning of cDNAs encoding secreted or transmembrane proteins that uses a bacterial plasmid (Amptrap) with a defective beta-lactamase gene. This method requires knowledge of only a single target motif that corresponds to as few as three amino acids; it was validated with major histocompatibility complex genes from a cartilaginous fish. Using this approach, we identified families of genes encoding secreted proteins with two diversified immunoglobulin-like variable (V) domains and a chitin-binding domain in amphioxus, a protochordate. Thus, multigenic families encoding diversified V regions exist in a species lacking an adaptive immune response.