Background The glyoxylate cycle is thought to be present in bacteria, protists, plants, fungi, and nematodes, but not in other Metazoa. However, activity of the glyoxylate cycle enzymes, malate synthase (MS) and isocitrate lyase (ICL), in animal tissues has been reported. In order to clarify the status of the MS and ICL genes in animals and get an insight into their evolution, we undertook a comparative-genomic study. Results Using sequence similarity searches, we identified MS genes in arthropods, echinoderms, and vertebrates, including platypus and opossum, but not in the numerous sequenced genomes of placental mammals. The regions of the placental mammals' genomes expected to code for malate synthase, as determined by comparison of the gene orders in vertebrate genomes, show clear similarity to the opossum MS sequence but contain stop codons, indicating that the MS gene became a pseudogene in placental mammals. By contrast, the ICL gene is undetectable in animals other than the nematodes that possess a bifunctional, fused ICL-MS gene. Examination of phylogenetic trees of MS and ICL suggests multiple horizontal gene transfer events that probably went in both directions between several bacterial and eukaryotic lineages. The strongest evidence was obtained for the acquisition of the bifunctional ICL-MS gene from an as yet unknown bacterial source with the corresponding operonic organization by the common ancestor of the nematodes. Conclusion The distribution of the MS and ICL genes in animals suggests that either they encode alternative enzymes of the glyoxylate cycle that are not orthologous to the known MS and ICL or the animal MS acquired a new function that remains to be characterized. Regardless of the ultimate solution to this conundrum, the genes for the glyoxylate cycle enzymes present a remarkable variety of evolutionary events including unusual horizontal gene transfer from bacteria to animals. Reviewers Arcady Mushegian (Stowers Institute for Medical Research), Andrey Osterman (Burnham Institute for Medical Research), Chris Ponting (Oxford University).