Genomic imprinting by epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, confers functional differences on parental chromosomes during development so that neither the male nor the female genome is by itself totipotential. We propose that maternal chromosomes are needed at the time when embryonic cells are totipotential or pluripotential, but paternal chromosomes are probably required for the proliferation of progenitor cells of differentiated tissues. Selective elimination or proliferation of embryonic cells may occur if there is an imbalance in the parental origin of some alleles. The inheritance of repressed and derepressed chromatin structures probably constitutes the initial germ-line-dependent 'imprints'. The subsequent modifications, such as changes in DNA methylation during early development, will be affected by the initial inheritance of epigenetic modifications and by the genotype-specific modifier genes. A significant number of transgene inserts are prone to reversible methylation imprinting so that paternally transmitted transgenes are undermethylated, whereas maternal transmission results in hypermethylation. Hence, allelic differences in epigenetic modifications can affect their potential for expression. The germ line evidently reverses the previously acquired epigenetic modifications before the introduction of new modifications. Errors in the reversal process could result in the transmission of epigenetic modifications to subsequent generation(s) with consequent cumulative phenotypic and grandparental effects.