5-Azacytidine was first synthesized almost 40 years ago. It was demonstrated to have a wide range of anti-metabolic activities when tested against cultured cancer cells and to be an effective chemotherapeutic agent for acute myelogenous leukemia. However, because of 5-azacytidine's general toxicity, other nucleoside analogs were favored as therapeutics. The finding that 5-azacytidine was incorporated into DNA and that, when present in DNA, it inhibited DNA methylation, led to widespread use of 5-azacytidine and 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (Decitabine) to demonstrate the correlation between loss of methylation in specific gene regions and activation of the associated genes. There is now a revived interest in the use of Decitabine as a therapeutic agent for cancers in which epigenetic silencing of critical regulatory genes has occurred. Here, the current status of our understanding of the mechanism(s) by which 5-azacytosine residues in DNA inhibit DNA methylation is reviewed with an emphasis on the interactions of these residues with bacterial and mammalian DNA (cytosine-C5) methyltransferases. The implications of these mechanistic studies for development of less toxic inhibitors of DNA methylation are discussed.