Background Orthopoxviruses are dsDNA viruses with large genomes, some encoding over 200 genes. Genes essential for viral replication are located in the center of the linear genome and genes encoding host response modifiers and other host interacting proteins are located in the terminal regions. The central portion of the genome is highly conserved, both in gene content and sequence, while the terminal regions are more diverse. In this study, we investigated the role of adaptive molecular evolution in poxvirus genes and the selective pressures that act on the different regions of the genome. The relative fixation rates of synonymous and non-synonymous mutations (the dN/dS ratio) are an indicator of the mechanism of evolution of sequences, and can be used to identify purifying, neutral, or diversifying selection acting on a gene. Like highly conserved residues, amino acids under diversifying selection may be functionally important. Many genes experiencing diversifying selection are involved in host-pathogen interactions, such as antigen-antibody interactions, or the "host-pathogen arms race." Results We analyzed 175 gene families from orthopoxviruses for evidence of diversifying selection. 79 genes were identified as experiencing diversifying selection, 25 with high confidence. Many of these genes are located in the terminal regions of the genome and function to modify the host response to infection or are virion-associated, indicating a greater role for diversifying selection in host-interacting genes. Of the 79 genes, 20 are of unknown function, and implicating diversifying selection as an important mechanism in their evolution may help characterize their function or identify important functional residues. Conclusions We conclude that diversifying selection is an important mechanism of orthopoxvirus evolution. Diversifying selection in poxviruses may be the result of interaction with host defense mechanisms.