BACKGROUND:Vertebrate alpha (alpha)- and beta (beta)-globin gene families exemplify the way in which genomes evolve to produce functional complexity. From tandem duplication of a single globin locus, the alpha- and beta-globin clusters expanded, and then were separated onto different chromosomes. The previous finding of a fossil beta-globin gene (omega) in the marsupial alpha-cluster, however, suggested that duplication of the alpha-beta cluster onto two chromosomes, followed by lineage-specific gene loss and duplication, produced paralogous alpha- and beta-globin clusters in birds and mammals. Here we analyse genomic data from an egg-laying monotreme mammal, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), to explore haemoglobin evolution at the stem of the mammalian radiation. RESULTS:The platypus alpha-globin cluster (chromosome 21) contains embryonic and adult alpha- globin genes, a beta-like omega-globin gene, and the GBY globin gene with homology to cytoglobin, arranged as 5'-zeta-zeta'-alphaD-alpha3-alpha2-alpha1-omega-GBY-3'. The platypus beta-globin cluster (chromosome 2) contains single embryonic and adult globin genes arranged as 5'-epsilon-beta-3'. Surprisingly, all of these globin genes were expressed in some adult tissues. Comparison of flanking sequences revealed that all jawed vertebrate alpha-globin clusters are flanked by MPG-C16orf35 and LUC7L, whereas all bird and mammal beta-globin clusters are embedded in olfactory genes. Thus, the mammalian alpha- and beta-globin clusters are orthologous to the bird alpha- and beta-globin clusters respectively. CONCLUSION:We propose that alpha- and beta-globin clusters evolved from an ancient MPG-C16orf35-alpha-beta-GBY-LUC7L arrangement 410 million years ago. A copy of the original beta (represented by omega in marsupials and monotremes) was inserted into an array of olfactory genes before the amniote radiation (>315 million years ago), then duplicated and diverged to form orthologous clusters of beta-globin genes with different expression profiles in different lineages.