Chicken beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2m) and class I (B-F19 alpha chain) cDNA clones were isolated and the sequences compared to those of B-F Ag isolated from chicken E. These clones represent the major expressed class I molecules on E, with B-F alpha size variants evidently due to alternative use of small exons in the cytoplasmic region. The cDNA sequences were compared to turkey beta 2m, the apparent allele B-F12 alpha and other vertebrate homologs, using the 2.6 A structure of the human HLA-A2 molecule as a model. Both chicken alpha 1 and alpha 2 domains resemble mammalian classical class I molecules and the MHC-encoded nonclassical molecules more than CD1 or the class I-like FcR. In contrast, the chicken alpha 3 domain is equally homologous to all alpha 3 domains, to beta 2m and to class II beta 2 domains. For each pair of extracellular domains (alpha 1 vs alpha 2, alpha 3 vs beta 2m), the level of sequence homology between mammalian and avian molecules is quite different. This suggests that the structurally homologous domains have been under different selective pressures during evolution. There is a very strong G + C bias in alpha 3 and beta 2m, leading to an overall change in amino acid composition in B-F compared to class I molecules from other taxa. Many of the surface residues are quite diverged, particularly in alpha 3 and beta 2m. There are fewer changes in intra- and interdomain contact sites. Some residues with important functions are invariant, including seven residues that bind the ends of the peptide, two residues that bind CD8, and three residues that are phosphorylated. The positions of the allelic residues are conserved. There are other patches of invariant residues on alpha 1, alpha 2, and beta 2m; these might bind TCR or other molecules involved in class I function.