The fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited mental retardation, is characterized by unique genetic mechanisms, which include amplification of a CGG repeat and abnormal DNA methylation. We have proposed that 2 main types of mutations exist. Premutations do not cause mental retardation, and are characterized by an elongation of 70 to 500 bp, with little or no somatic heterogeneity and without abnormal methylation. Full mutations are associated with high risk of mental retardation, and consist of an amplification of 600 bp or more, with often extensive somatic heterogeneity, and with abnormal DNA methylation. To analyze whether the latter pattern is already established during fetal life, we have studied chorionic villi from 10 fetuses with a full mutation. In some cases we have compared them to corresponding fetal tissues. Our results indicate that somatic heterogeneity of the full mutation is established during (and possibly limited to) the very early stages of embryogenesis. This is supported by the extraordinary concordance in mutation patterns found in 2 sets of monozygotic twins (9 and 30 years old). While the methylation pattern specific of the inactive X chromosome appears rarely present on chorionic villi of normal females, the abnormal methylation characteristic of the full mutation was present in 8 of 9 male or female chorionic villi analyzed. This suggests that the methylation mechanisms responsible for establishing the inactive X chromosome pattern and the full mutation pattern are, at least in part, distinct. Our results validate the analysis of chorionic villi for direct prenatal diagnosis of the fragile X syndrome.