The presence of 5-azacytosine (ZCyt) residues in DNA leads to potent inhibition of DNA (cytosine-C5) methyltranferases (C5-MTases) in vivo and in vitro. Enzymatic methylation of cytosine in mammalian DNA is an epigenetic modification that can alter gene activity and chromosomal stability, influencing both differentiation and tumorigenesis. Thus, it is important to understand the critical mechanistic determinants of ZCyt's inhibitory action. Although several DNA C5-MTases have been reported to undergo essentially irreversible binding to ZCyt in DNA, there is little agreement as to the role of AdoMet and/or methyl transfer in stabilizing enzyme interactions with ZCyt. Our results demonstrate that formation of stable complexes between HhaI methyltransferase (M.HhaI) and oligodeoxyribonucleotides containing ZCyt at the target position for methylation (ZCyt-ODNs) occurs in both the absence and presence of co-factors, AdoMet and AdoHcy. Both binary and ternary complexes survive SDS-PAGE under reducing conditions and take on a compact conformation that increases their electrophoretic mobility in comparison to free M.HhaI. Since methyl transfer can occur only in the presence of AdoMet, these results suggest (1) that the inhibitory capacity of ZCyt in DNA is based on its ability to induce a stable, tightly closed conformation of M.HhaI that prevents DNA and co-factor release and (2) that methylation of ZCyt in DNA is not required for inhibition of M.HhaI.