Background: Phytochromes are red light-sensitive photoreceptors that control a variety of developmental processes in plants, algae, bacteria and fungi. Prototypical phytochromes exhibit an N-terminal tridomain (PGP) consisting of PAS, GAF and PHY domains and a C-terminal histidine kinase (HK). Results: The mode of evolution of streptophyte, fungal and diatom phytochromes from bacteria is analyzed using two programs for sequence alignment and six programs for tree construction. Our results suggest that Bacteroidetes present the most ancient types of phytochromes. We found many examples of lateral gene transfer and rearrangements of PGP and HK sequences. The PGP and HK of streptophyte phytochromes seem to have different origins. In the most likely scenario, PGP was inherited from cyanobacteria, whereas the C-terminal portion originated from a proteobacterial protein with multiple PAS domains and a C-terminal HK. The plant PhyA and PhyB lineages go back to an early gene duplication event before the diversification of streptophytes. Fungal and diatom PGPs could have a common prokaryotic origin within proteobacteria. Early gene duplication is also obvious in fungal phytochromes. ... mehrConclusions: The dominant question of the origin of plant phytochromes is difficult to tackle because the patterns differ among phylogenetic trees. We could partially overcome this problem by combining several alignment and tree construction algorithms and comparing many trees. A rearrangement of PGP and HK can directly explain the insertion of the two PAS domains by which streptophyte phytochromes are distinguished from all other phytochromes. © 2015 Buchberger and Lamparter; licensee BioMed Central.