BACKGROUND: ApaH like phosphatases (ALPHs) originate from the bacterial ApaH protein and have been identified in all eukaryotic super-groups. Only two of these proteins have been functionally characterised. We have shown that the ApaH like phosphatase ALPH1 from the Kinetoplastid Trypanosoma brucei is the mRNA decapping enzyme of the parasite. In eukaryotes, Dcp2 is the major mRNA decapping enzyme and mRNA decapping by ALPHs is unprecedented, but the bacterial ApaH protein was recently found decapping non-conventional caps of bacterial mRNAs. These findings prompted us to explore whether mRNA decapping by ALPHs is restricted to Kinetoplastida or could be more widespread among eukaryotes. RESULTS: We screened 827 eukaryotic proteomes with a newly developed Python-based algorithm for the presence of ALPHs and used the data to characterize the phylogenetic distribution, conserved features, additional domains and predicted intracellular localisation of this protein family. For most organisms, we found ALPH proteins to be either absent (495/827 organisms) or to have non-cytoplasmic localisation predictions (73% of all ALPHs), excluding a function in mRNA decapping. Although, non-cytoplasmic ALPH proteins had in vitro mRNA decapping activity. Only 71 non-Kinetoplastida have ALPH proteins with predicted cytoplasmic localisations. However, in contrast to Kinetoplastida, these organisms also possess a homologue of Dcp2 and in contrast to ALPH1 of Kinetoplastida, these ALPH proteins are very short and consist of the catalytic domain only. CONCLUSIONS: ALPH was present in the last common ancestor of eukaryotes, but most eukaryotes have either lost the enzyme, or use it exclusively outside the cytoplasm. The acceptance of mRNA as a substrate indicates that ALPHs, like bacterial ApaH, have a wide substrate range: the need to protect mRNAs from unregulated degradation is one possible explanation for the selection against the presence of cytoplasmic ALPH proteins in most eukaryotes. Kinetoplastida succeeded to exploit ALPH as their only or major mRNA decapping enzyme. 71 eukaryotic organisms outside the Kinetoplastid lineage have short ALPH proteins with cytoplasmic localisation predictions: whether these proteins are used as decapping enzymes in addition to Dcp2 or else have adapted to not accept mRNAs as a substrate, remains to be explored.