To determine the methylation status of female germ cells in reference to the programmed reversal of X chromosome inactivation in these cells, we examined human fetal ovaries at developmental stages from the time germ cells initiate meiosis to when they cease to synthesize DNA (8-21 weeks gestation). Using methylation-sensitive restriction enzymes, we analyzed 57 MspI sites (32 sites in the CpG islands, and 25 nonclustered sites) from five X-linked housekeeping genes (HPRT, G6PD, P3, PGK, and GLA) and two tissue specific genes (X-linked F9 and autosomal EPO). Methylation patterns were compared to those of male germ cells, sperm, and somatic tissues of both sexes. All 32 MspI sites in CpG islands were unmethylated in germ-cell fractions of fetal ovary and adult testes, which could explain the reversibility of X inactivation in these tissues. However, whereas male meiotic germ cells were extensively methylated outside the islands (in the body of genes) and the methylation patterns resembled those of most somatic tissues, none of the 25 nonclustered CpGs was methylated in DNA contributed by the germ-cell component of fetal ovaries. The presence of faint MspI-like fragments in HpaII digests of fetal testes as well as fetal ovary prior to the onset of meiosis suggests that DNA of primordial germ cells is unmethylated in both sexes. Our observations of meiotic germ cells suggest that the female germ cells remain unmethylated, but that methylation in male germ cells occurs postnatally, prior to or during the early stages of spermatogenesis. In any event, the striking sex difference in methylation status of endogenous single-copy genes in meiotic germ cells could provide a molecular basis for parental imprinting of the mammalian genome.