A distinctive feature of BRCA1-linked breast cancers is that they typically do not express estrogen receptor-alpha (ER(alpha)). Previous investigation suggests that methylation of CpGs within the ER(alpha) promoter mediates repression of gene expression in some ER(alpha)-negative breast cancers. To determine if methylation of CpGs within the ER(alpha) promoter is associated with BRCA1-linked breast cancers, we evaluated methylation in exon 1 of the ER(alpha) gene in 40 ER(alpha)-negative breast cancers, 20 of which were non BRCA1-linked and 20 BRCA1-linked. CpG methylation was evaluated by either methylation-sensitive restriction digest (HpaII), methylation-sensitive PCR (MSP), or direct sequencing of bisulfite-treated genomic DNA. Results from HpaII digests and MSP documented a high degree of methylation, the MSP data showing slightly higher methylation in the BRCA1-linked group. CpGs analysed by direct sequencing showed an overall average methylation of 25% among non BRCA1-linked cancers and 40% among BRCA1-linked cancers (P=0.0031). The most notable difference was found at five particular CpGs, each of which exhibited a greater than twofold increase in methylation in the BRCA1-linked group compared to the non BRCA1-linked group (P<0.03 for each CpG). Methylation of certain critical CpGs may represent an important factor in transcriptional repression of the ER(alpha) gene in BRCA1-linked breast cancers.