We report an investigation of the structure, evolutionary history, and function of the highly repeated DNA family named Long Interspersed Sequence One (L1). Hybridization studies show, first, that L1 is present throughout marsupial and placental mammalian orders. Second, L1 is more homologous within these species than between them, which suggests that it has undergone concerted evolution within each mammalian lineage. Third, on the whole L1 diverges in accordance with the fossil record. This suggests that it arose in each lineage rather by inheritance from a common ancestral family, which was present in the progenitor to mammals, than by cross-species transmission. Alignment of 1.6 X 10(3) bases of primate and mouse L1 DNA sequences shows a predominance of silent mutations within aligned long open reading frames, indicating that at least this part of L1 has produced functional protein. The observation of additional long open reading frames in further unaligned DNA sequences suggests that a minimum of 3.2 X 10(3) bases or at least half of the L1 structure is a protein-coding sequence. Thus L1, which contains about 100,000 members in mouse, is by far the most repetitive family of which a subset comprises functional protein-encoding genes. The ability of the putative protein-encoding regions of mouse L1 to hybridize to L1 homologs throughout the Mammalia implies that these sequences have been subject to conservative selection upon protein function in all mammalian lineages, rather than in a few. L1 is therefore a highly repeated family of genes with both a widespread and an ancient history of function in mammals.