DNA methylation is a stable but not irreversible epigenetic signal that silences gene expression. It has a variety of important functions in mammals, including control of gene expression, cellular differentiation and development, preservation of chromosomal integrity, parental imprinting and X-chromosome inactivation. In addition, it has been implicated in brain function and the development of the immune system. Somatic alterations in genomic methylation patterns contribute to the etiology of human cancers and ageing. It is tightly interwoven with the modification of histone tails and other epigenetic signals. Here we review our current understanding of the molecular enzymology of the mammalian DNA methyltransferases Dnmt1, Dnmt3a, Dnmt3b and Dnmt2 and the roles of the enzymes in the above-mentioned biological processes.