One of the "signature" phenotypes of highly malignant, poorly differentiated tumors, including hepatomas, is their remarkable propensity to utilize glucose at a much higher rate than normal cells, a property frequently dependent on the marked overexpression of type II hexokinase (HKII). As the expression of the gene for this enzyme is nearly silent in liver tissue, we tested the possibility that DNA methylation/demethylation events may be involved in its regulation. Initial studies employing methylation restriction endonuclease analysis provided evidence for differential methylation patterns for the HKII gene in normal hepatocytes and hepatoma cells, the latter represented by a highly glycolytic model cell line (AS-30D). Subsequently, sequencing following sodium bisulfite treatment revealed 18 methylated CpG sites within a CpG island (-350 to +781 bp) in the hepatocyte gene but none in that of the hepatoma. In addition, treatment of a hepatocyte cell line with the DNA methyltransferase inhibitors, 5'-azacytidine and 5'-aza-2'-deoxycytidine, activated basal expression levels of HKII mRNA and protein. Finally, stably transfecting the hepatocyte cell line with DNA demethylase also resulted in activating the basal expression levels of HKII mRNA and protein. These novel observations indicate that one of the initial events in activating the HKII gene during either transformation or tumor progression may reside at the epigenetic level.