Epigenomics is the study of the complete set of epigenetic modifications on the genetic material of a cell, known as the epigenome. The field is analogous to genomics and proteomics, which are the study of the genome and proteome of a cell. Epigenetic modifications are reversible modifications on a cell's DNA or histones that affect gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. Epigenomic maintenance is a continuous process and plays an important role in stability of eukaryotic genomes by taking part in crucial biological mechanisms like DNA repair. Plant flavones are said to be inhibiting epigenomic marks that cause cancers. Two of the most characterized epigenetic modifications are DNA methylation and histone modification. Epigenetic modifications play an important role in gene expression and regulation, and are involved in numerous cellular processes such as in differentiation/development and tumorigenesis. The study of epigenetics on a global level has been made possible only recently through the adaptation of genomic high-throughput assays.

Genomic modifications that alter gene expression that cannot be attributed to modification of the primary DNA sequence and that are heritable mitotically and meiotically are classified as epigenetic modifications. DNA methylation and histone modification are among the best characterized epigenetic processes.

DNA methylation patterns vary greatly between species and even within the same organism. The usage of methylation among animals is quite different; with vertebrates exhibiting the highest levels of 5mC and invertebrates more moderate levels of 5mC. Some organisms like Caenorhabditis elegans have not been demonstrated to have 5mC nor a conventional DNA methyltransferase; this would suggest that other mechanisms other than DNA methylation are also involved.

Chromatin packaging of DNA varies depending on the cell cycle stage and by local DNA region. The degree to which chromatin is condensed is associated with a certain transcriptional state. Unpackaged or loose chromatin is more transcriptionally active than tightly packaged chromatin because it is more accessible to transcriptional machinery. By remodeling chromatin structure and changing the density of DNA packaging, gene expression can thus be modulated.

Histone modifications regulate gene expression by two mechanisms: by disruption of the contact between nucleosomes and by recruiting chromatin remodeling ATPases. An example of the first mechanism occurs during the acetylation of lysine terminal tail amino acids, which is catalyzed by histone acetyltransferases (HATs). HATs are part of a multiprotein complex that is recruited to chromatin when activators bind to DNA binding sites. Acetylation effectively neutralizes the basic charge on lysine, which was involved in stabilizing chromatin through its affinity for negatively charged DNA. Acetylated histones therefore favor the dissociation of nucleosomes and thus unwinding of chromatin can occur. Under a loose chromatin state, DNA is more accessible to transcriptional machinery and thus expression is activated. The process can be reversed through removal of histone acetyl groups by deacetylases.

The cellular processes of transcription, DNA replication and DNA repair involve the interaction between genomic DNA and nuclear proteins. It had been known that certain regions within chromatin were extremely susceptible to DNAse I digestion, which cleaves DNA in a low sequence specificity manner. Such hypersensitive sites were thought to be transcriptionally active regions, as evidenced by their association with RNA polymerase and topoisomerases I and II.

Techniques for characterizing primary DNA sequences could not be directly applied to methylation assays. For example, when DNA was amplified in PCR or bacterial cloning techniques, the methylation pattern was not copied and thus the information lost. The DNA hybridization technique used in DNA assays, in which radioactive probes were used to map and identify DNA sequences, could not be used to distinguish between methylated and non-methylated DNA.

Bisulfite sequencing relies on chemical conversion of unmethylated cytosines exclusively, such that they can be identified through standard DNA sequencing techniques. Sodium bisulfate and alkaline treatment does this by converting unmethylated cytosine residues into uracil while leaving methylated cytosine unaltered. Subsequent amplification and sequencing of untreated DNA and sodium bisulphite treated DNA allows for methylated sites to be identified. Bisulfite sequencing, like the traditional restriction based methods, was historically limited to methylation patterns of specific gene loci, until whole genome sequencing technologies became available. However, unlike traditional restriction based methods, bisulfite sequencing provided resolution on a nucleotide level.

In 2010 a team of scientists demonstrated the use of single-molecule real-time sequencing for direct detection of modified nucleotide in the DNA template including N6-methyladenosine, 5-methylcytosine and 5-hydroxylcytosine. These various modifications affect polymerase kinetics differently, allowing discrimination between them.