This study investigates the early evolution of vertebrate red blood cell (rbc) carbonic anhydrase (CA) by examining the physiological and molecular properties of rbc CA in teleost fish. When representatives of four different families of teleosts were compared, it was found that differences in overall rbc CA activity were due to different concentrations of CA, rather than differences in the enzyme's kinetic properties. Additional molecular analysis of CA from the rbcs of rainbow trout provided further evidence that critical elements of the enzyme, such as the active site, have been highly conserved during vertebrate evolution. The active site of the trout CA differed from that of gar rbc CA at only two amino acid positions. The rainbow trout rbc CA sequence also showed high sequence homology with CA sequences from other fish tissues, and fits into an emerging group of fish CAs that are basal to mammalian CA I, II and III. Northern blot analysis of the tissue expression of the sequenced CA indicated that it is primarily found in the rbcs, but high amounts of cytosolic CA activity were also found in the gill, suggesting the presence of other cytosolic CA isozymes in this species.