Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy is an autosomal dominant disorder resulting from an unusual genetic mechanism. The mutation, a deletion of 3.3 kb subtelomeric repeats, appears to disrupt the regional regulation of 4q35 g ene expression. The specific gene(s)responsible for facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy have not been identified. However, the 'vacuolar/necrotic' phenotype exhibited by facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy myoblasts suggests that aberrant gene expression occurs early in facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy muscle development. In order to test this hypothesis, global gene expression profiling and in vitro characterization of facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy and control myoblasts were carried out. Genes involved in several cellular processes such as oxidative stress were found to be dysregulated. In vitro studies confirmed this susceptibility to oxidative stress, as proliferative stage facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy myoblasts exhibit greatly reduced viability when exposed to the oxidative stressor paraquat. This effect was not seen in either normal or disease control myoblasts, or in any of the cell lines upon differentiation to multinucleated myotubes. Immunocytochemical studies of the cyclin dependent kinase inhibitor p21 demonstrated increased expression in facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy myoblasts, suggesting an early cell cycle arrest. Another process distinguishing facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy from controls involves the transcription of extracellular matrix components. Expression of elastin, decorin, lumican and the extracellular matrix remodeling factor TIMP3 were reduced in facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy myoblasts. These studies suggest that facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy muscular dystrophy results from a defect in early myogenesis, manifested as increased susceptibility to oxidative stress, morphological aberrations and early cell cycle arrest.