DNA photolyase specifically repairs UV light-induced cyclobutane-type pyrimidine dimers in DNA through a light-dependent reaction mechanism. We have obtained photolyase genes from Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly), Oryzias latipes (killifish) and the marsupial Potorous tridactylis (rat kangaroo), the first photolyase gene cloned from a mammalian species. The deduced amino acid sequences of these higher eukaryote genes show only limited homology with microbial photolyase genes. Together with the previously cloned Carassius auratus (goldfish) gene they form a separate group of photolyase genes. A new classification for photolyases comprising two distantly related groups is proposed. For functional analysis P.tridactylis photolyase was expressed and purified as glutathione S-transferase fusion protein from Escherichia coli cells. The biologically active protein contained FAD as light-absorbing cofactor, a property in common with the microbial class photolyases. Furthermore, we found in the archaebacterium Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum a gene similar to the higher eukaryote photolyase genes, but we could not obtain evidence for the presence of a homologous gene in the human genome. Our results suggest a divergence of photolyase genes in early evolution.