Prion diseases are manifest as genetic, sporadic or infectious neurodegenerative disorders in humans and animals. The prolonged incubation times that accompany the transmission of prions between species are due, at least in part, to differences in prion protein (PrP) sequence. To examine the species barriers between non-human primates and humans, we sequenced the open reading frames (ORF) of 25 PrP genes from apes and monkeys. Comparison of the PrP genes of these animals with that of humans showed amino acid identities ranging from 92.9 to 99.6%. While phylograms of primate PrP sequences revealed a novel branching pattern for the apes, the genomic organization of all the primate PrP genes was similar, with the entire ORF contained within a single exon. Alignment of variant residues in primates, rodents and domestic animals showed no concordance with the mutations that segregate with human prion diseases or with polymorphisms that modulate disease in humans, mice and sheep. Most substitutions were conservative and, characteristically, clustered outside the four putative alpha-helical regions that are thought to form a four-helix bundle in the cellular isoform of PrP (PrPC). Deletion of one of five Gly-Pro rich octarepeats from the N-terminus of PrP was seen in some species, while squirrel monkeys had an additional octarepeat; squirrel monkeys have been frequently used as experimental hosts for transmission of human prions. Alignment of primate and other mammalian PrP sequences suggests that codons between 90 and 130 have a profound influence on the transmissibility of prions from one species to another.