The endocannabinoid signalling system in mammals comprises several molecular components, including cannabinoid receptors (e.g. CB1, CB2), putative endogenous ligands for these receptors [e.g. anandamide, 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)] and enzymes involved in the biosynthesis and inactivation of anandamide (e.g. NAPE-PLD, FAAH) and 2-AG (e.g. DAG lipase, MGL). In this review we examine the occurrence of these molecules in non-mammalian organisms (in particular, animals and plants) by surveying published data and by basic local alignment search tool (BLAST) analysis of the GenBank database and of genomic sequence data from several vertebrate and invertebrate species. We conclude that the ability of cells to synthesise molecules that are categorised as "endocannabinoids" in mammals is an evolutionarily ancient phenomenon that may date back to the unicellular common ancestor of animals and plants. However, exploitation of these molecules for intercellular signalling may have occurred independently in different lineages during the evolution of the eukaryotes. The CB1- and CB2-type receptors that mediate effects of endocannabinoids in mammals occur throughout the vertebrates, and an orthologue of vertebrate cannabinoid receptors was recently identified in the deuterostomian invertebrate Ciona intestinalis (CiCBR). However, orthologues of the vertebrate cannabinoid receptors are not found in protostomian invertebrates (e.g. Drosophila, Caenorhabditis elegans). Therefore, it is likely that a CB1/CB2-type cannabinoid receptor originated in a deuterostomian invertebrate. This phylogenetic information provides a basis for exploitation of selected non-mammalian organisms as model systems for research on endocannabinoid signalling.