BACKGROUND: Although the etiology of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) remains enigmatic, there are several pieces of data supporting the thesis that a strong genetic predisposition and environmental factors interact to produce a selective loss of tolerance. The striking female predominance of PBC has suggested that this sex predisposition may be secondary to epigenetic alterations on the X chromosome. In the present study, we rigorously defined the X chromosome methylation profile of CD4, CD8, and CD14 cells from 30 PBC patients and 30 controls. Genomic DNA from sorted CD4, CD8, and CD14 subpopulations was isolated, sonicated, and immunoprecipitated for analysis of methylation. All products were hybridized to a custom-tiled four-plex array containing 27,728 CpG islands annotated by UCSC and 22,532 well-characterized RefSeq promoter regions. Furthermore, bisulfite sequencing was then used for validation on a subsequent group of independent samples from PBC patients and controls. Thence, expression levels of selected X-linked genes were evaluated by quantitative real-time PCR with cDNA samples from all subjects. RESULTS: We report herein that a total of 20, 15, and 19 distinct gene promoters reflected a significant difference in DNA methylation in CD4+ T, CD8+ T, and CD14+ cells in patients with PBC. Interestingly, there was hypermethylation of FUNDC2 in CD8+ T cells and a striking demethylation of CXCR3 in CD4+ T cells, which inversely correlated with CXCR3 expression levels in CD4+ T cells from early-stage PBC patients. CONCLUSIONS: Our data provides a set of genes with epigenetic alteration likely to be indicators of autoimmunity and emphasizes the role of CXCR3 in the natural history of PBC.