All jawed vertebrates contain the genetic elements essential for the function of the adaptive/combinatorial immune response, have diverse sets of natural antibodies resulting from segmental gene recombination, express comparable functional repertoires and can produce specific antibodies following appropriate immunization. Profound variability occurs in the third hypervariable (CDR3) segments of light and heavy chains even within antibodies of the same ostensible specificity. Germline VH and VL elements, as well as the joining (J) segments are highly conserved among the distinct vertebrate species. Conservation is particularly noted among the VH3-like sequences of all jawed vertebrates in the FR2 and FR3 segments, as well as in the FGXGT(R or K)L J-segment characteristic of light chains and TCRs and the WGXGT(uncharged)VT JH segments. Human VH3-53 and Vlambda6 family orthologs may be present over the entire range of vertebrates. Models of the three-dimensional structures of shark VH/VL combining sites indicate similarity in framework structure and comparable CDR usage to those of man. Although carcharhine shark VH regions show greater than 50% identity to the human VH germline prototype, searches of lower deuterostome and invertebrate databases fail to detect molecules with significant relatedness. Overall, antibodies of jawed vertebrates show tremendous individual diversity, but are constructed incorporating design features that arose with the evolutionary emergence of the jawed vertebrates and have been conserved through at least 450 million years of evolutionary time.