An opioid growth factor (OGF), [Met5]-enkephalin, interacts with the zeta (zeta) opioid receptor to modulate development of eukaryotes. We have found that [Met5]-enkephalin, an endogenous opioid peptide serves to inhibit the growth of S. aureus. This effect on growth involves cell proliferative events and is under tonic control, since potent opioid antagonists accelerate cell replication. Both the OGF and zeta opioid receptor were associated with these microorganisms. Other opioid receptors (mu, delta and kappa) were not detected. OGF also controlled the growth of other bacteria: P. aeruginosa and S. marcesans. These results indicate that OGF and its receptor, known to be important in the regulation of mammalian development, also function in the growth of simple unicellular organisms. We suggest that the endogenous opioid system related to growth originated billions of years ago.