In the present study, we examined the effects of CoCl(2) on multiple histone modifications at the global level. We found that in both human lung carcinoma A549 cells and human bronchial epithelial Beas-2B cells, exposure to CoCl(2) (>/=200 muM) for 24 h increased H3K4me3, H3K9me2, H3K9me3, H3K27me3, H3K36me3, uH2A and uH2B but decreased acetylation at histone H4 (AcH4). Further investigation demonstrated that in A549 cells, the increase in H3K4me3 and H3K27me3 by cobalt ions exposure was probably through enhancing histone methylation processes, as methionine-deficient medium blocked the induction of H3K4me3 and H3K27me3 by cobalt ions, whereas cobalt ions increased H3K9me3 and H3K36me3 by directly inhibiting JMJD2A demethylase activity in vitro, which was probably due to the competition of cobalt ions with iron for binding to the active site of JMJD2A. Furthermore, in vitro ubiquitination and deubiquitination assays revealed that the cobalt-induced histone H2A and H2B ubiquitination is the result of inhibition of deubiquitinating enzyme activity. Microarray data showed that exposed to 200 microM of CoCl(2) for 24 h, A549 cells not only increased but also decreased expression of hundreds of genes involved in different cellular functions, including tumorigenesis. This study is the first to demonstrate that cobalt ions altered epigenetic homeostasis in cells. It also sheds light on the possible mechanisms involved in cobalt-induced alteration of histone modifications, which may lead to altered programs of gene expression and carcinogenesis since cobalt at higher concentrations is a known carcinogen.