DNA methylation plays an important role in epigenetic signalling, having an impact on gene regulation, chromatin structure, development and disease. Here, we review the structures and functions of the mammalian DNA methyltransferases Dnmt1, Dnmt3a and Dnmt3b, including their domain structures, catalytic mechanisms, localisation, regulation, post-translational modifications and interaction with chromatin and other proteins, summarising data obtained in genetic, cell biology and enzymatic studies. We focus on the question of how the molecular and enzymatic properties of these enzymes are connected to the dynamics of DNA methylation patterns and to the roles the enzymes play in the processes of de novo and maintenance DNA methylation. Recent enzymatic and genome-wide methylome data have led to a new model of genomic DNA methylation patterns based on the preservation of average levels of DNA methylation in certain regions, rather than the methylation states of individual CG sites.
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