The mechanisms that establish and maintain methylation patterns in the mammalian genome are very poorly understood, even though perturbations of methylation patterns lead to a loss of genomic imprinting, ectopic X chromosome inactivation, and death of mammalian embryos. A family of sequence-specific DNA methyltransferases has been proposed to be responsible for the wave of de novo methylation that occurs in the early embryo, although no such enzyme has been identified. A universal mechanism-based probe for DNA (cytosine-5)-methyltransferases was used to screen tissues and cell types known to be active in de novo methylation for new species of DNA methyltransferase. All identifiable de novo methyltransferase activity was found to reside in Dnmt1. As this enzyme is the predominant de novo methyltransferase at all developmental stages inspected, it does not fit the definition of maintenance methyltransferase or hemimethylase. Recent genetic data indicate that de novo methylation of retroviral DNA in embryonic stem cells is likely to involve one or more additional DNA methyltransferases. Such enzymes were not detected and are either present in very small amounts or are very different from Dnmt1. A new method was developed and used to determine the sequence specificity of intact Dnmt1 in whole-cell lysates. Specificity was found to be confined to the sequence 5'-CpG-3'; there was little dependence on sequence context or density of CpG dinucleotides. These data suggest that any sequence-specific de novo methylation mediated by Dnmt1 is either under the control of regulatory factors that interact with Dnmt1, or is cued by alternative secondary structures in DNA.