BACKGROUND: Alterations in DNA methylation and histone modifications have been implicated in carcinogenesis. Although tumor-specific alterations in DNA methylation can be detected in the serum and plasma of cancer patients, no data are available on the presence of histone modifications in circulating blood. We investigated whether histone methylation, as a model of histone modifications, is detectable in plasma. Because methylation at histone 3 lysine 9 (H3K9) has been demonstrated to be enriched at sites of repetitive ALU elements, we addressed the specificity of histone-methylation detection and hypothesized that if monomethylated H3K9 (H3K9mel) is detectable in plasma, the concentrations in mononucleosomes and oligonucleosomes would be different. We also analyzed a single-copy gene, CDKN2A.