The CpG island methylator phenotype (CIMP or CIMP-high) with widespread promoter methylation is a distinct phenotype in colorectal cancer. However, the concept of CIMP-low with less extensive CpG island methylation is still evolving. Our aim is to examine whether density of methylation in individual CpG islands was different between CIMP-low and CIMP-high tumors. Utilizing MethyLight technology and 889 population-based colorectal cancers, we quantified DNA methylation (methylation index, percentage of methylated reference) at 14 CpG islands, including 8 CIMP-high-specific loci (CACNA1G, CDKN2A (p16), CRABP1, IGF2, MLH1, NEUROG1, RUNX3 and SOCS1). Methylation positivity in each locus was defined as methylation index>4. Low-level methylation (methylation index>0, <20) in each CIMP-high-specific locus was significantly more common in 340 CIMP-low tumors (1/8-5/8 methylation-positive loci) than 133 CIMP-high tumors (> or =6/8 methylation-positive loci) and 416 CIMP-0 tumors (0/8 methylation-positive loci) (P< or =0.002). In the other six loci (CHFR, HIC1, IGFBP3, MGMT, MINT31 and WRN), which were not highly specific for CIMP-high, low-level methylation, was not persistently more prevalent in CIMP-low tumors. In conclusion, compared to CIMP-high and CIMP-0 tumors, CIMP-low colorectal cancers show not only few methylated CIMP-high-specific CpG islands, but also more frequent low-level methylation at individual loci. Our data may provide supporting evidence for a difference in pathogenesis of DNA methylation between CIMP-low and CIMP-high tumors.