Although it is well known that DNA methylation serves to repress gene expression, precisely how it functions during the process of development remains unclear. Here, we propose that the overall pattern of DNA methylation established in the early embryo serves as a sophisticated mechanism for maintaining a genome-wide network of gene regulatory elements in an inaccessible chromatin structure throughout the body. As development progresses, programmed demethylation in each cell type then provides the specificity for maintaining select elements in an open structure. This allows these regulatory elements to interact with a large range of transcription factors and thereby regulate the gene expression profiles that define cell identity.

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