Genomic methylation, which influences many cellular processes such as gene expression and chromatin organization, generally declines with cellular senescence although some genes undergo paradoxical hypermethylation during cellular aging and immortalization. To explore potential mechanisms for this process, we analyzed the methylating activity of three DNA methyltransferases (Dnmts) in aging and immortalized WI-38 fibroblasts. Overall maintenance methylating activity by the Dnmts greatly decreased during cellular senescence. In immortalized WI-38 cells, maintenance methylating activity was similar to that of normal young cells. Combined de novo methylation activity of the Dnmts initially decreased but later increased as WI-38 cells aged and was strikingly elevated in immortalized cells. To further elucidate the mechanisms for changes in DNA methylation in aging and immortalized cells, the individual Dnmts were separated and individually assessed for maintenance and de novo methylating activity. We resolved three Dnmt fractions, one of which was the major maintenance methyltransferase, Dnmt1, which declined steadily in activity with cellular senescence and immortalization. However, a more basic Dnmt, which has significant de novo methylating activity, increased markedly in activity in aging and immortalized cells. We have identified this methyltransferase as Dnmt3b which has an important role in neoplastic transformation but its role in cellular senescence and immortalization has not previously been reported. An acidic Dnmt we isolated also had increased de novo methylating activity in senescent and immortalized WI-38 cells. These studies indicate that reduced genome-wide methylation in aging cells may be attributed to attenuated Dnmt1 activity but that regional or gene-localized hypermethylation in aging and immortalized cells may be linked to increased de novo methylation by Dnmts other than the maintenance methyltransferase. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.