A Xenopus class I cDNA clone, isolated from a cDNA expression library using antisera, is a member of a large family of non-classical class I genes (class Ib) composed of at least nine subfamilies, all of which are expressed at the RNA level. The subfamilies are well conserved in their immunoglobulin-like alpha 3 domains, but their peptide-binding regions (PBRs) and cytoplasmic domains are very divergent. In contrast to the great allelic diversity found in the PBR of classical class I genes, the alleles of one of the Xenopus non-classical subfamilies are extremely well conserved in all regions. Several of the invariant amino acids essential for the anchoring of peptides in the classical class I groove are not conserved in some subfamilies, but the class Ib genes are nevertheless more closely related in the PBR to classical and non-classical genes linked to the MHC in mammals and birds than to any other described class I genes like CD1 and the neonatal rat intestinal Fc receptor. Comparison with the Xenopus MHC-linked class Ia protein indicate that amino acids presumed to interact with beta 2-microglobulin are identical or conservatively changed in the two major class I families. Genomic analyses of Xenopus species suggest that the classical and non-classical families diverged from a common ancestor before the emergence of the genus Xenopus over 100 million years ago; all of the non-classical genes appear to be linked on a chromosome distinct from the one harboring the MHC. We hypothesize that this class Ib gene family is under very different selection pressures from the classical MHC genes, and that each subfamily may have evolved for a particular function.