Nuclear receptor genes represent a large family of genes encoding receptors for various hydrophobic ligands such as steroids, vitamin D, retinoic acid and thyroid hormones. This family also contains genes encoding putative receptors for unknown ligands. Nuclear receptor gene products are composed of several domains important for transcriptional activation, DNA binding (C domain), hormone binding and dimerization (E domain). It is not known whether these genes have evolved through gene duplication from a common ancestor or if their different domains came from different independent sources. To test these possibilities we have constructed and compared the phylogenetic trees derived from two different domains of 30 nuclear receptor genes. The tree built from the DNA binding C domain clearly shows a common progeny of all nuclear receptors, which can be grouped into three subfamilies: (i) thyroid hormone and retinoic acid receptors, (ii) orphan receptors and (iii) steroid hormone receptors. The tree constructed from the central part of the E domain which is implicated in transcriptional regulation and dimerization shows the same distribution in three subfamilies but two groups of receptors are in a different position from that in the C domain tree: (i) the Drosophila knirps family genes have acquired very different E domains during evolution, and (ii) the vitamin D and ecdysone receptors, as well as the FTZ-F1 and the NGF1B genes, seem to have DNA binding and hormone binding domains belonging to different classes. These data suggest a complex evolutionary history for nuclear receptor genes in which gene duplication events and swapping between domains of different origins took place.