The correct establishment and maintenance of DNA methylation patterns are critical for mammalian development and the control of normal cell growth and differentiation. DNA methylation has profound effects on the mammalian genome, including transcriptional repression, modulation of chromatin structure, X chromosome inactivation, genomic imprinting, and the suppression of the detrimental effects of repetitive and parasitic DNA sequences on genome integrity. Consistent with its essential role in normal cells and predominance at repetitive genomic regions, aberrant changes of DNA methylation patterns are a common feature of diseases with chromosomal and genomic instabilities. In this context, the functions of DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs) can be affected by mutations or alterations of their expression. DNMT3B, which is involved in de novo
methylation, is of particular interest not only because of its important role in development, but also because of its dysfunction in human diseases. Expression of catalytically inactive isoforms has been associated with cancer risk and germ line hypomorphic mutations with the ICF syndrome (Immunodeficiency Centromeric instability Facial anomalies). In these diseases, global genomic hypomethylation affects repeated sequences around centromeric regions, which make up large blocks of heterochromatin, and is associated with chromosome instability, impaired chromosome segregation and perturbed nuclear architecture. The review will focus on recent data about the function of DNMT3B, and the consequences of its deregulated activity on pathological DNA hypomethylation, including the illicit activation of germ line-specific genes and accumulation of transcripts originating from repeated satellite sequences, which may represent novel physiopathological biomarkers for human diseases. Notably, we focus on cancer and the ICF syndrome, pathological contexts in which hypomethylation has been extensively characterized. We also discuss the potential contribution of these deregulated protein-coding and non-coding transcription programs to the perturbation of cellular phenotypes.