In kinetoplastids, Euglena, and four metazoan phyla, trans-splicing has been described as a mechanism for the generation of mature messenger RNAs (mRNAs): 5'-ends of precursor mRNAs are replaced by a short spliced leader (SL) exon from a small SL RNA. Although the full phylogenetic range is unknown, trans-splicing has not been found in vertebrates, insects, plants, or yeast. In animal groups where it does occur, i.e., nematodes, cnidarians, platyhelminths, and primitive chordates, SL RNAs do not show sequence relatedness across phyla. The apparently sporadic phylogenetic distribution and the lack of SL RNA homology have led to opposing hypotheses on its evolution, involving either an ancient origin followed by loss in multiple lineages or independent acquisition in several taxa. Here we present evidence for the occurrence of trans-splicing in bdelloid rotifers (Bdelloidea, Rotifera). A common 23-nt sequence, representing the SL exon-diagnostic of SL RNA-mediated trans-splicing-was found at the 5'-end of at least 50%-65% of mRNAs from Adineta ricciae and Philodina sp. The trans-splicing pattern in bdelloid rotifers can be unusually complex, as observed in transcripts from a heat shock protein gene, hsp82-1, where the SL exon was spliced to three alternative positions. Bdelloid rotifer SL RNAs were found to be 105 or 106 nt long and comprised the SL sequence, a conserved splice donor site and an intron containing a putative spliceosome-binding motif. Intriguingly, some similarity of rotifer SL RNA sequence and predicted secondary structure was seen to that of the predominant SL1 RNA of nematodes, although it is unlikely that this demonstrates homology. In addition, sequence corresponding to the rotifer SL exon was found at the 5'-end of a number of full-length complementary DNA (cDNA) clones in a rice (Oryza sativa) database. None of these cDNAs gave a close match with homologous plant genes, suggesting that a small but significant portion of the rice expressed sequence tag database represents sequences derived from rotifers. In summary, the description of SL-mediated trans-splicing in Rotifera extends its representation to at least five metazoan phyla, making it increasingly probable that this is a phylogenetically widespread and therefore ancient phenomenon.