CpG islands are normally methylation free in cells of the animal, even when the associated gene is transcriptionally silent. In mouse NIH 3T3 and L cells, however, over half of the islands are heavily methylated. Near identity of the methylated subset in the two cell lines suggested that methylation is confined to genes that are nonessential in culture. In agreement with this, islands at several tissue-specific genes, but not at housekeeping genes, have become methylated in many human and mouse cell lines. At the chromatin level, methylated islands are Mspl resistant compared with their nonmethylated counterparts. We suggest that mutation-like gene inactivation due to CpG island methylation is widespread in many cell lines and could explain the loss of cell type-specific functions in culture.