The human Rh blood-group system is encoded by two homologous genes, RhD and RhCE. The RH genes in gorillas and chimpanzees were investigated to delineate the phylogeny of the human RH genes. Southern blot analysis with an exon 7-specific probe suggested that gorillas have more than two RH genes, as has recently been reported for chimpanzees. Exon 7 was well conserved between humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, although the exon 7 nucleotide sequences from gorillas were more similar to the human D gene, whereas the nucleotide sequences of this exon in chimpanzees were more similar to the human CE gene. The intron between exon 4 and exon 5 is polymorphic and can be used to distinguish the human D gene from the CE gene. Nucleotide sequencing revealed that the basis for the intron polymorphism is an Alu element in CE which is not present in the D gene. Examination of gorilla and chimpanzee genomic DNA for this intron polymorphism demonstrated that the D intron was present in all the chimpanzees and in all but one gorilla. The CE intron was found in three of six gorillas, but in none of the seven chimpanzees. Sequence data suggested that the Alu element might have previously been present in the chimpanzee RH genes but was eliminated by excision or recombination. Conservation of the RhD gene was also apparent from the complete identity between the 3'-noncoding region of the human D cDNA and a gorilla genomic clone, including an Alu element which is present in both species. The data suggest that at least two RH genes were present in a common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, and that additional RH gene duplication has taken place in gorillas and chimpanzees. The RhCE gene appears to have diverged more than RhD among primates. In addition, the RhD gene deletion associated with the Rh-negative phenotype in humans seems to have occurred after speciation.