There are two biological properties of genomic methylation patterns that can be regarded as established. First, methylation of 5'-CpG-3' dinucleotides within promoters represses transcription, often to undetectable levels. Second, in most cases methylation patterns are subject to clonal inheritance. These properties suit methylation patterns for a number of biological roles, although none of the current hypotheses can be regarded as proved or disproved. One hypothesis suggests that the activity of parasitic sequence elements is repressed by selective methylation. Features of invasive sequences that might allow their identification and inactivation are discussed in terms of the genome defense hypothesis. Identification of the cues that direct de novo methylation may reveal the biological role (or roles) of genomic methylation patterns.