Dietary folate/methyl deficiency provides a unique model of endogenous hepatocarcinogenesis in which to study progressive alterations in DNA methylation patterns during tumor progression in vivo. Weanling male F344 rats were given a semi-purified diet deficient in the methyl donors choline, methionine and folic acid for a period of 9 weeks. Using a genomic sequencing procedure based on the PCR amplification of bisulfite-modified DNA, the methylation status of individual CpG sites within exons 6 and 7 of the p53 gene in liver samples from control and deficient rats was determined. Treatment of denatured nuclear DNA with sodium bisulfite quantitatively converts all cytosine residues to uracil which are then amplified as thymine in the PCR reaction. In contrast, 5-methylcytosine is resistant to bisulfite deamination under the reaction conditions and is amplified as cytosine. Automated sequencing of bisulfite-modified DNA will then elucidate the methylation status of each cytosine residue within a defined gene sequence. In addition to evaluation of the methylation status of the p53 gene, the relative activity of the DNA methyltransferase was also quantified in nuclear extracts from control and folate/methyl deficient rats. The results indicate that specific 5-methyl cytosines within the hepatic p53 gene from methyl deficient rats are resistant to demethylation despite the diet-induced decrease in S-adenosylmethionine and the increase in cell proliferation associated with this dietary intervention. Progressive demethylation was observed at other methylated cytosine residues in folate/methyl deficient rats after 9 weeks despite a paradoxical increase in DNA methyltransferase activity. The application of this sequence-specific technology will allow the definition of the methylation status of every CpG site within a coding sequence or promoter region and should provide new insights into mechanisms and consequences of methylation dysregulation during progressive multistage carcinogenesis.