Tumour cell lines are commonly used in colorectal cancer (CRC) research, including studies designed to assess methylation defects. Although many of the known genetic aberrations in CRC cell lines have been comprehensively described, no studies have been performed on their methylation status. In this study, 30 commonly used CRC cell lines as well as seven primary tumours from individuals with hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) were assessed for methylation at six CpG islands known to be hypermethylated in colorectal cancer: hMLH1, p16, methylated in tumour (MINT-)-1, -2, -12 and -31. The cell lines were also assessed for microsatellite instability (MSI), ploidy status, hMLH1 expression, and mutations in APC and Ki-ras. Methylation was frequently observed at all examined loci in most cell lines, and no differences were observed between germline-derived and sporadic cell lines. Methylation was found at MINT 1 in 63%, MINT 2 in 57%, MINT 12 in 71%, MINT 31 in 53%, p16 in 71%, and hMLH1 in 30% of cell lines. Overall only one cell line, SW1417, did not show methylation at any locus. Methylation was found with equal frequency in MSI and chromosomally unstable lines. MSI was over-represented in the cell lines relative to sporadic CRC, being detected in 47% of cell lines. The rate of codon 13 Ki-ras mutations was also over three times that expected from in vivo studies. We conclude that CpG island hypermethylation, whether acquired in vivo or in culture, is a ubiquitous phenomenon in CRC cell lines. We suggest that CRC cell lines may be only representative of a small subset of real tumours, and this should be taken into account in the use of CRC cell lines for epigenetic studies.