Background Chlorophyll-binding proteins (CBPs) constitute a large family of proteins with diverse functions in both light-harvesting and photoprotection. The evolution of CBPs has been debated, especially with respect to the origin of the LI818 subfamily, members of which function in non-photochemical quenching and have been found in chlorophyll a/c-containing algae and several organisms of the green lineage, but not in red algae so far. The recent publication of the Ectocarpus siliculosus genome represents an opportunity to expand on previous work carried out on the origin and function of CBPs. Results The Ectocarpus genome codes for 53 CBPs falling into all major families except the exclusively green family of chlorophyll a/b binding proteins. Most stress-induced CBPs belong to the LI818 family. However, we highlight a few stress-induced CBPs from Phaeodactylum tricornutum and Chondrus crispus that belong to different sub-families and are promising targets for future functional studies. Three-dimensional modeling of two LI818 proteins revealed features common to all LI818 proteins that are likely to interfere with their capacity to bind chlorophyll b and lutein, but may enable binding of chlorophyll c and fucoxanthin. In the light of this finding, we examined the possibility that LI818 proteins may have originated in a chlorophyll c/fucoxanthin containing organism and compared this scenario to three alternatives: an independent evolution of LI818 proteins in different lineages, an ancient origin together with the first CBPs, before the separation of the red and the green lineage, or an origin in the green lineage and a transfer to an ancestor of haptophytes and heterokonts during a cryptic endosymbiosis event. Conclusions Our findings reinforce the idea that the LI818 family of CBPs has a role in stress response. In addition, statistical analyses of phylogenetic trees show an independent origin in different eukaryotic lineages or a green algal origin of LI818 proteins to be highly unlikely. Instead, our data favor an origin in an ancestral chlorophyll a/c-containing organism and a subsequent lateral transfer to some green algae, although an origin of LI818 proteins in a common ancestor of red and green algae cannot be ruled out.