The unusual DNA base beta-D-glucosyl-hydroxymethyluracil, called "J, " replaces approximately 0.5-1% of Thy in DNA of African trypanosomes but has not been found in other organisms thus far. In Trypanosoma brucei, J is located predominantly in repetitive DNA, and its presence correlates with the silencing of telomeric genes. Using antibodies specific for J, we have developed sensitive assays to screen for J in a range of organisms and have found that J is not limited to trypanosomes that undergo antigenic variation but is conserved among Kinetoplastida. In all kinetoplastids tested, including the human pathogens Leishmania donovani and Trypanosoma cruzi, J was found to be abundantly present in the (GGGTTA)n telomere repeats. Outside Kinetoplastida, J was found only in Diplonema, a small phagotrophic marine flagellate, in which we also identified 5-MeCyt. Fractionation of Diplonema DNA showed that the two modifications are present in a common genome compartment, which suggests that they may have a similar function. Dinoflagellates appear to contain small amounts of modified bases that may be analogs of J. The evolutionary conservation of J in kinetoplastid protozoans suggests that it has a general function, repression of transcription or recombination, or a combination of both. T. brucei may have recruited J for the control of genes involved in antigenic variation.