Abstract Background DNA hypermethylation events and other epimutations occur in many neoplasms, producing gene expression changes that contribute to neoplastic transformation, tumorigenesis, and tumor behavior. Some human cancers exhibit a hypermethylator phenotype, characterized by concurrent DNA methylation-dependent silencing of multiple genes. To determine if a hypermethylation defect occurs in breast cancer, the expression profile and promoter methylation status of methylation-sensitive genes were evaluated among breast cancer cell lines. Results The relationship between gene expression (assessed by RT-PCR and quantitative real-time PCR), promoter methylation (assessed by methylation-specific PCR, bisulfite sequencing, and 5-aza-2'deoxycytidine treatment), and the DNA methyltransferase machinery (total DNMT activity and expression of DNMT1, DNMT3a, and DNMT3b proteins) were examined in 12 breast cancer cell lines. Unsupervised cluster analysis of the expression of 64 methylation-sensitive genes revealed two groups of cell lines that possess distinct methylation signatures: (i) hypermethylator cell lines, and (ii) low-frequency methylator cell lines. The hypermethylator cell lines are characterized by high rates of concurrent methylation of six genes (CDH1, CEACAM6, CST6, ESR1, LCN2, SCNN1A), whereas the low-frequency methylator cell lines do not methylate these genes. Hypermethylator cell lines coordinately overexpress total DNMT activity and DNMT3b protein levels compared to normal breast epithelial cells. In contrast, most low-frequency methylator cell lines possess DNMT activity and protein levels that are indistinguishable from normal. Microarray data mining identified a strong cluster of primary breast tumors that express the hypermethylation signature defined by CDH1, CEACAM6, CST6, ESR1, LCN2, and SCNN1A. This subset of breast cancers represents 18/88 (20%) tumors in the dataset analyzed, and 100% of these tumors were classified as basal-like, suggesting that the hypermethylator defect cosegregates with poor prognosis breast cancers. Conclusion These observations combine to strongly suggest that: (a) a subset of breast cancer cell lines express a hypermethylator phenotype, (b) the hypermethylation defect in these breast cancer cell lines is related to aberrant overexpression of DNMT activity, (c) overexpression of DNMT3b protein significantly contributes to the elevated DNMT activity observed in tumor cells expressing this phenotype, and (d) the six-gene hypermethylator signature characterized in breast cancer cell lines defines a distinct cluster of primary basal-like breast cancers.