In the more than twenty years since its discovery, both the phylogenetic origin and cellular function of the prion protein (PrP) have remained enigmatic. Insights into a possible function of PrP may be obtained through the characterization of its molecular neighborhood in cells. Quantitative interactome data demonstrated the spatial proximity of two metal ion transporters of the ZIP family, ZIP6 and ZIP10, to mammalian prion proteins in vivo. A subsequent bioinformatic analysis revealed the unexpected presence of a PrP-like amino acid sequence within the N-terminal, extracellular domain of a distinct sub-branch of the ZIP protein family that includes ZIP5, ZIP6 and ZIP10. Additional structural threading and orthologous sequence alignment analyses argued that the prion gene family is phylogenetically derived from a ZIP-like ancestral molecule. The level of sequence homology and the presence of prion protein genes in most chordate species place the split from the ZIP-like ancestor gene at the base of the chordate lineage. This relationship explains structural and functional features found within mammalian prion proteins as elements of an ancient involvement in the transmembrane transport of divalent cations. The phylogenetic and spatial connection to ZIP proteins is expected to open new avenues of research to elucidate the biology of the prion protein in health and disease.