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Global loss of DNA methylation and CpG island (CGI) hypermethylation are regarded as key epigenomic aberrations in cancer. Global loss manifests itself in partially methylated domains (PMDs) which can extend up to megabases. However, the distribution of PMDs within and between tumor types, and their effects on key functional genomic elements including CGIs are poorly defined. Using whole genome bisulfite sequencing (WGBS) of breast cancers, we comprehensively show that loss of methylation in PMDs occurs in a large fraction of the genome and represents the prime source of variation in DNA methylation. PMDs are hypervariable in methylation level, size and distribution, and display elevated mutation rates. They impose intermediate DNA methylation levels incognizant of functional genomic elements including CGIs, underpinning a CGI methylator phenotype (CIMP). However, significant repression effects on cancer-genes are negligible as tumor suppressor genes are generally excluded from PMDs. The genomic distribution of PMDs reports tissue-of-origin of different cancers and may represent tissue-specific 'silent' regions of the genome, which tolerate instability at the epigenetic, transcriptomic and genetic level.

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