DNA hypomethylation was the initial epigenetic abnormality recognized in human tumors. However, for several decades after its independent discovery by two laboratories in 1983, it was often ignored as an unwelcome complication, with almost all of the attention on the hypermethylation of promoters of genes that are silenced in cancers (e.g., tumor-suppressor genes). Because it was subsequently shown that global hypomethylation of DNA in cancer was most closely associated with repeated DNA elements, cancer linked-DNA hypomethylation continued to receive rather little attention. DNA hypomethylation in cancer can no longer be considered an oddity, because recent high-resolution genome-wide studies confirm that DNA hypomethylation is the almost constant companion to hypermethylation of the genome in cancer, just usually (but not always) in different sequences. Methylation changes at individual CpG dyads in cancer can have a high degree of dependence not only on the regional context, but also on neighboring sites. DNA demethylation during carcinogenesis may involve hemimethylated dyads as intermediates, followed by spreading of the loss of methylation on both strands. In this review, active demethylation of DNA and the relationship of cancer-associated DNA hypomethylation to cancer stem cells are discussed. Evidence is accumulating for the biological significance and clinical relevance of DNA hypomethylation in cancer, and for cancer-linked demethylation and de novo methylation being highly dynamic processes.
Keywords: DNA methylation; DNA repeats; cancer; genomic sequencing; hypermethylation; hypomethylation.