Changing DNA methylation patterns during embryonic development are discussed in relation to differential gene expression, changes in X-chromosome activity and genomic imprinting. Sperm DNA is more methylated than occyte DNA, both overall and for specific sequences. The methylation difference between the gametes could be one of the mechanisms (along with chromatin structure) regulating initial differences in expression of parental alleles in early development. There is a loss of methylation during development from the morula to the blastocyst and a marked decrease in methylase activity. De novo methylation becomes apparent around the time of implantation and occurs to a lesser extent in extra-embryonic tissue DNA. In embryonic DNA, de novo methylation begins at the time of random X-chromosome inactivation but it continues to occur after X-chromosome inactivation and may be a mechanism that irreversibly fixes specific patterns of gene expression and X-chromosome inactivity in the female. The germ line is probably delineated before extensive de novo methylation and hence escapes this process. The marked undermethylation of the germ line DNA may be a prerequisite for X-chromosome reactivation. The process underlying reactivation and removal of parent-specific patterns of gene expression may be changes in chromatin configuration associated with meiosis and a general reprogramming of the germ line to developmental totipotency.