Background: The marsupial early lactation protein (ELP) gene is expressed in the mammary gland and the protein is secreted into milk during early lactation (Phase 2A). Mature ELP shares approximately 55.4% similarity with the colostrum-specific bovine colostrum trypsin inhibitor (CTI) protein. Although ELP and CTI both have a single bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor (BPTI)-Kunitz domain and are secreted only during the early lactation phases, their evolutionary history is yet to be investigated. Results: Tammar ELP was isolated from a genomic library and the fat-tailed dunnart and Southern koala ELP genes cloned from genomic DNA. The tammar ELP gene was expressed only in the mammary gland during late pregnancy (Phase 1) and early lactation (Phase 2A). The opossum and fat-tailed dunnart ELP and cow CTI transcripts were cloned from RNA isolated from the mammary gland and dog CTI from cells in colostrum. The putative mature ELP and CTI peptides shared 44.6%-62.2% similarity. In silico analyses identified the ELP and CTI genes in the other species examined and provided compelling evidence that they evolved from a common ancestral gene. In addition, whilst the eutherian CTI gene was conserved in the Laurasiatherian orders Carnivora and Cetartiodactyla, it had become a pseudogene in others. These data suggest that bovine CTI may be the ancestral gene of the Artiodactyla-specific, rapidly evolving chromosome 13 pancreatic trypsin inhibitor (PTI), spleen trypsin inhibitor (STI) and the five placenta-specific trophoblast Kunitz domain protein (TKDP1-5) genes. Conclusions: Marsupial ELP and eutherian CTI evolved from an ancestral therian mammal gene before the divergence of marsupials and eutherians between 130 and 160 million years ago. The retention of the ELP gene in marsupials suggests that this early lactation-specific milk protein may have an important role in the immunologically nave young of these species.