The biological significance of 5-methylcytosine was in doubt for many years, but is no longer. Through targeted mutagenesis in mice it has been learnt that every protein shown by biochemical tests to be involved in the establishment, maintenance or interpretation of genomic methylation patterns is encoded by an essential gene. A human genetic disorder (ICF syndrome) has recently been shown to be caused by mutations in the DNA methyltransferase 3B (DNMT3B) gene. A second human disorder (Rett syndrome) has been found to result from mutations in the MECP2 gene, which encodes a protein that binds to methylated DNA. Global genome demethylation caused by targeted mutations in the DNA methyltransferase-1 (Dnmt1) gene has shown that cytosine methylation plays essential roles in X-inactivation, genomic imprinting and genome stabilization. The majority of genomic 5-methylcytosine is now known to enforce the transcriptional silence of the enormous burden of transposons and retroviruses that have accumulated in the mammalian genome. It has also become clear that programmed changes in methylation patterns are less important in the regulation of mammalian development than was previously believed. Although a number of outstanding questions have yet to be answered (one of these questions involves the nature of the cues that designate sites for methylation at particular stages of gametogenesis and early development), studies of DNA methyltransferases are likely to provide further insights into the biological functions of genomic methylation patterns.