BACKGROUND: Drugs and other xenobiotics alter gene expression of cytochromes P450 (CYP) by activating the pregnane X receptor (PXR) and constitutive androstane receptor (CAR) in mammals. In non-mammalian species, only one xenosensor gene has been found. Using chicken as a model organism, the aim of our study was to elucidate whether non-mammalian species only have one or two xenosensors like mammals. RESULTS: To explore the evolutionary aspect of this divergence, we tried to identify additional xenobiotic sensing nuclear receptors in chicken using various experimental approaches. However, none of those revealed novel candidates. Ablation of chicken xenobiotic receptor (CXR) function by RNAi or dominant-negative alleles drastically reduced drug-induction in a chicken hepatoma cell line. Subsequently, we functionally and structurally characterized CXR and compared our results to PXR and CAR. Despite the high similarity in their amino acid sequence, PXR and CAR have very distinct modes of activation. Some aspects of CXR function, e.g. direct ligand activation and high promiscuity are very reminiscent of PXR. On the other hand, cellular localization studies revealed common characteristics of CXR and CAR in terms of cytoplasmic-nuclear distribution. Finally, CXR has unique properties regarding its regulation in comparison to PXR and CAR. CONCLUSION: Our finding thus strongly suggest that CXR constitutes an ancestral gene which has evolved into PXR and CAR in mammals. Future studies should elucidate the reason for this divergence in mammalian versus non-mammalian species.