The cytosolic malic enzyme of the amitochondriate protist Trichomonas vaginalis was purified to homogeneity and characterized. The corresponding gene was sequenced and compared with its hydrogenosomal homologue from the same organism. The enzymes were found to differ in coenzyme specificity, molecular mass and physiological role. The cytosolic malic enzyme is a dimer consisting of two 42-kDa subunits with strict specificity for nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP(+)), and has a presumed function of pyruvate and NADPH production. The hydrogenosomal malic enzyme is a tetramer of 60-kDa subunits that preferentially utilizes nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD(+)) to NADP(+). The hydrogenosomal enzyme supplies the hydrogenosome with pyruvate for further catabolic processes linked with substrate-level phosphorylation. Phylogenetic analysis of malic enzymes showed the existence of two distinct families of these enzymes in nature, which differ in subunit size. The trichomonad cytosolic malic enzyme belongs to the small subunit-type family that occurs almost exclusively in prokaryotes. In contrast, the hydrogenosomal malic enzyme displays a close relationship with the large subunit-type family of the enzyme, which is found in mitochondria, plastids and the cytosol of eukaryotes. The eubacterial origin of trichomonad cytosolic malic enzyme suggests an occurrence of horizontal gene transfer from a eubacterium to the ancestor of T. vaginalis. The presence of both prokaryotic and eukaryotic type of malic enzyme in different compartments of a single eukaryotic cell appears to be unique in nature.