CpG islands (CGIs) are regions enriched in the dinucleotide CpG; they constitute the promoter of about 60% of mammalian genes. In cancer cells, some promoter-associated CGIs become heavily methylated on cytosines, and the corresponding genes undergo stable transcriptional silencing. Hypermethylated CGIs attract methyl-CpG-binding proteins (MBPs), which have been shown to recruit chromatin modifiers and cause transcriptional repression. These observations have led to the prevalent model that methyl-CpG-binding proteins are promoter-proximal transcriptional repressors. Recent discoveries challenge this idea and raise a number of questions. Here we discuss the following issues: what are other possible roles for the known MBPs? Why are these proteins not essential in mammals? Are there other MBPs left to discover? Could CpG methylation be nonessential?