BACKGROUND: Mate choice is of central importance to most animals, influencing population structure, speciation, and ultimately the survival of a species. Mating behavior of male brachionid rotifers is triggered by the product of a chemosensory gene, a glycoprotein on the body surface of females called the mate recognition pheromone. The mate recognition pheromone has been biochemically characterized, but little was known about the gene(s). We describe the isolation and characterization of the mate recognition pheromone gene through protein purification, N-terminal amino acid sequence determination, identification of the mate recognition pheromone gene from a cDNA library, sequencing, and RNAi knockdown to confirm the functional role of the mate recognition pheromone gene in rotifer mating. RESULTS: A 29 kD protein capable of eliciting rotifer male circling was isolated by high-performance liquid chromatography. Two transcript types containing the N-terminal sequence were identified in a cDNA library; further characterization by screening a genomic library and by polymerase chain reaction revealed two genes belonging to each type. Each gene begins with a signal peptide region followed by nearly perfect repeats of an 87 to 92 codon motif with no codons between repeats and the final motif prematurely terminated by the stop codon. The two Type A genes contain four and seven repeats and the two Type B genes contain three and five repeats, respectively. Only the Type B gene with three repeats encodes a peptide with a molecular weight of 29 kD. Each repeat of the Type B gene products contains three asparagines as potential sites for N-glycosylation; there are no asparagines in the Type A genes. RNAi with Type A double-stranded RNA did not result in less circling than in the phosphate-buffered saline control, but transfection with Type B double-stranded RNA significantly reduced male circling by 17%. The very low divergence between repeat units, even at synonymous positions, suggests that the repeats are kept nearly identical through a process of concerted evolution. Information-rich molecules like surface glycoproteins are well adapted for chemical communication and aquatic animals may have evolved signaling systems based on these compounds, whereas insects use cuticular hydrocarbons. CONCLUSION: Owing to its critical role in mating, the mate recognition pheromone gene will be a useful molecular marker for exploring the mechanisms and rates of selection and the evolution of reproductive isolation and speciation using rotifers as a model system. The phylogenetic variation in the mate recognition pheromone gene can now be studied in conjunction with the large amount of ecological and population genetic data being gathered for the Brachionus plicatilis species complex to understand better the evolutionary drivers of cryptic speciation.