rRNA synthesis is regulated by genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenetic states are metastable, changing in response to appropriate signals, thereby modulating transcription in vivo. The establishment, maintenance and reversal of epigenetic features are fundamental for the cell's ability to 'remember' past events, to adapt to environmental changes or developmental cues and to propagate this information to the progeny. As packaging into chromatin is critical for the stability and integrity of repetitive DNA, keeping a fraction of rRNA genes in a metastable heterochromatic conformation prevents aberrant exchanges between repeats, thus safeguarding nucleolar structure and rDNA stability. In this review, we will focus on the nature of the molecular signatures that characterize a given epigenetic state of rDNA in mammalian cells, including noncoding RNA, DNA methylation and histone modifications, and the mechanisms by which they are established and maintained. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Transcription by Odd Pols.