SUMMARY Gene and genome duplications in the vertebrate lineage explain the complexity of extant gene families. Among these, the medium-chain alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which expanded by tandem duplications after the cephalochordate–vertebrate split, is a good model with which to analyze the evolution of gene function. Although the ancestral member of this family, ADH3, has been strictly conserved throughout animal evolution, its physiological role is still controversial. Previous evidence indicates that it contributes to formaldehyde cytoprotection, retinoic acid metabolism, and nitric oxide homeostasis. We performed in situ hybridization during Drosophila, ascidian (Ciona intestinalis), and zebrafish (Danio rerio) development. We showed that Adh3 expression was restricted to the fat body in Drosophila embryos at stage 17 and to the anterior endoderm in C. intestinalis tail bud, whereas in the zebrafish 2.5-day larvae the signal appeared widespread. A more comprehensive expression analysis including amphioxus and mice revealed that ancestral Adh3 was tissue specific, whereas a widespread expression was later attained in vertebrates. These variations occurred concomitantly with the expansion of the ADH family and the acquisition of new functions but were unlinked to the genomic changes that led to the transition from fractional to global methylation in vertebrates. Our data challenge the housekeeping role of ADH3 and question its involvement in the prevertebrate retinoic acid pathway.