A full-length proenkephalin cDNA (accession number: AF232670) was cloned from an African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) brain cDNA library. The 1,351-bp African lungfish proenkephalin contains an open reading frame that codes 266 amino acids and a stop codon. Within the sequence of lungfish proenkephalin there are 5 pentapeptide opioid sequences (all YGGFM), 1 octapeptide opioid sequence (YGGFMRSL) and 1 heptapeptide opioid sequence (YGGFMGY). A Leu-enkephalin sequence was conspicuously absent in lungfish proenkephalin. These results, coupled with observations on the organization of amphibian proenkephalin and mammalian proenkephalin, indicate that among the Sarcopterygii (lobed finned fish and tetrapods), the appearance of a Leu-enkephalin sequence in proenkephalin may have evolved in either the ancestral amniotes or the ancestral mammals, but not earlier in sarcopterygian evolution. Furthermore, the detection of neurons in the lungfish CNS that are only immunopositive for Met-enkephalin, coupled with earlier anatomical studies on the presence of neurons in the lungfish CNS that are only immunopositive for Leu-enkephalin, indicates that a Leu-enkephalin-coding opioid gene must be present in the CNS of the lungfish. This gene may be the lungfish form of prodynorphin. Given the phylogenetic position of the lungfish in vertebrate evolution, the putative Leu-enkephalin-coding gene must have evolved in the ancestral sarcopterygian vertebrates, or in the ancestral gnathostomes. The apparent slow rate of lungfish evolution makes these organisms interesting models for investigating the evolution of the opioid/orphanin gene family.