R and B genes and their homologues encode basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcriptional activators that regulate the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway in flowering plants. In maize, R/B genes comprise a very small gene family whose organization reflects the unique evolutionary history and genome architecture of maize. To know whether the organization of the R gene family could provide information about the origins of the distantly related grass rice, we characterized members of the R gene family from rice Oryza sativa. Despite being a true diploid, O. sativa has at least two R genes. An active homologue (Ra) with extensive homology with other R genes is located at a position on chromosome 4 previously shown to be in synteny with regions of maize chromosomes 2 and 10 that contain the B and R loci, respectively. A second rice R gene (Rb) of undetermined function was identified on chromosome 1 and found to be present only in rice species with AA genomes. All non-AA species have but one R gene that is Ra-like. These data suggest that the common ancestor shared by maize and rice had a single R gene and that the small R gene families of grasses have arisen recently and independently.