BACKGROUND: Population phenotypic variation can arise from genetic differences between individuals, or from cellular heterogeneity in an isogenic group of cells or organisms. The emergence of gene expression differences between genetically identical cells is referred to as gene expression noise, the sources of which are not well understood. RESULTS: In this work, by studying gene expression noise between multiple cell lineages and mammalian species, we find consistent evidence of a role for CpG islands as sources of gene expression noise. Variation in noise among CpG island promoters can be partially attributed to differences in island size, in which short islands have noisier gene expression. Building on these findings, we investigate the potential for short CpG islands to act as fast response elements to environmental stimuli. Specifically, we find that these islands are enriched amongst primary response genes in SWI/SNF-independent stimuli, suggesting that expression noise is an indicator of promoter responsiveness. CONCLUSIONS: Thus, through the integration of single-cell RNA expression profiling, chromatin landscape and temporal gene expression dynamics, we have uncovered a role for short CpG island promoters as fast response elements.