Caveolae are vesicular organelles that represent an appendage of the plasma membrane. Caveolin, a 21-24-kDa integral membrane protein, is a principal component of caveolae membranes in vivo. Caveolin has been proposed to function as a plasma membrane scaffolding protein to organize and concentrate signaling molecules within caveolae, including heterotrimeric G proteins (alpha and betagamma subunits). In this regard, caveolin interacts directly with Galpha subunits and can functionally regulate their activity. To date, three cDNAs encoding four subtypes of caveolin have been described in vertebrates. However, evidence for the existence of caveolin proteins in less complex organisms has been lacking. Here, we report the identification, cDNA sequence and genomic organization of the first invertebrate caveolin gene, Cavce (for caveolin from Caenorhabditis elegans). The Cavce gene, located on chromosome IV, consists of two exons interrupted by a 125-nucleotide intron sequence. The region of Cavce that is strictly homologous to mammalian caveolins is encoded by a single exon in Cavce. This suggests that mammalian caveolins may have evolved from the second exon of Cavce. Cavce is roughly equally related to all three known mammalian caveolins and, thus, could represent a common ancestor. Remarkably, the invertebrate Cavce protein behaves like mammalian caveolins: (i) Cavce forms a high molecular mass oligomer, (ii) assumes a cytoplasmic membrane orientation, and (iii) interacts with G proteins. A 20-residue peptide encoding the predicted G protein binding region of Cavce possesses "GDP dissociation inhibitor-like activity" with the same potency as described earlier for mammalian caveolin-1. Thus, caveolin appears to be structurally and functionally conserved from worms to man. In addition, we find that there are at least two caveolin-related genes expressed in C. elegans, defining an invertebrate caveolin gene family. These results establish the nematode C. elegans as an invertebrate model system to study caveolae and caveolin in vivo.