The p16 INK4A tumor suppressor gene participates in establishing and maintaining the malignant phenotype of a variety of cancer cell lines and primary tumors. Recently it has been observed that p16 expression is lost in oral cavity cancer cell lines in the presence of a normal intact gene. To examine the role of DNA methylation as an explanation for these findings, we analyzed the DNA methylation patterns of the p16 INK4A promoter in DNA isolated from primary cultures of normal human oral keratinocytes and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC-15) oral cancer cells using bisulfite genomic sequencing. Our results demonstrated striking differences in the methylation status of the 5' CpG island of the p16 gene between normal and cancer cells. Normal human oral keratinocytes showed practically no methylation of the p16 INK4A promoter, while SCC-15 oral cancer cells showed almost complete methylation in this region. These data implicate DNA methylation as a mechanism for transcriptional silencing of the p16 INK4A gene in oral cancer cells.