The molecular mechanisms for targeting and translocation of secreted proteins are highly conserved from bacteria to mammalian cells, although the machinery is more complex in higher eukaryotes. To investigate protein transport in the early-diverging eukaryote, Giardia lamblia, we cloned the gene encoding the alpha subunit (SRalpha) of the signal recognition particle (SRP) receptor. SRalpha is a small GTPase that functions in SRP-ribosome targeting to the ER. Sequence and phylogenetic analyses showed that SRalpha from G. lamblia is most homologous to SRalpha proteins from higher eukaryotes, although it lacks some conserved motifs. Specifically, giardial SRalpha has an N-terminal extension that enables SRalpha of higher eukaryotes to interact with a beta subunit that anchors it in the ER membrane. While the C-terminal regions are similar, giardial SRalpha lacks a prominent 13 amino acid regulatory loop that is characteristic of higher eukaryotic versions. Thus, giardial SRalpha resembles that of higher eukaryotes, but likely diverged before the advent of the regulatory loop. The 1.8 kb SRalpha transcript has extremely short untranslated regions (UTRs) a 1-2 nt 5'- and a 9 nt 3' UTR with the polyadenylation signal overlapping with the stop codon. RT-PCR, Northern and Western analyses showed that SRalpha is present at relatively constant levels during vegetative growth and encystation, even though there are extensive changes in endomembrane structures and secretory activity during encystation. Imnuno-EM showed that SRalpha localizes to ER-like structures, strengthening the observation of a typical ER in G. lamlia. Unexpectedly, SRalpha was also found in the lysosome-like peripheral vacuoles, suggesting unusual protein traffic in this early eukaryote. Our results indicate that the eukaryotic type of cotranslational transport appeared early in the evolution of the eukaryotic cell.