BACKGROUND: High-throughput sequencing of cell-free DNA fragments found in human plasma has been used to non-invasively detect fetal aneuploidy, monitor organ transplants and investigate tumor DNA. However, many biological properties of this extracellular genetic material remain unknown. Research that further characterizes circulating DNA could substantially increase its diagnostic value by allowing the application of more sophisticated bioinformatics tools that lead to an improved signal to noise ratio in the sequencing data. METHODS: In this study, we investigate various features of cell-free DNA in plasma using deep-sequencing data from two pregnant women (>70X, >50X) and compare them with matched cellular DNA. We utilize a descriptive approach to examine how the biological cleavage of cell-free DNA affects different sequence signatures such as fragment lengths, sequence motifs at fragment ends and the distribution of cleavage sites along the genome. RESULTS: We show that the size distributions of these cell-free DNA molecules are dependent on their autosomal and mitochondrial origin as well as the genomic location within chromosomes. DNA mapping to particular microsatellites and alpha repeat elements display unique size signatures. We show how cell-free fragments occur in clusters along the genome, localizing to nucleosomal arrays and are preferentially cleaved at linker regions by correlating the mapping locations of these fragments with ENCODE annotation of chromatin organization. Our work further demonstrates that cell-free autosomal DNA cleavage is sequence dependent. The region spanning up to 10 positions on either side of the DNA cleavage site show a consistent pattern of preference for specific nucleotides. This sequence motif is present in cleavage sites localized to nucleosomal cores and linker regions but is absent in nucleosome-free mitochondrial DNA. CONCLUSIONS: These background signals in cell-free DNA sequencing data stem from the non-random biological cleavage of these fragments. This sequence structure can be harnessed to improve bioinformatics algorithms, in particular for CNV and structural variant detection. Descriptive measures for cell-free DNA features developed here could also be used in biomarker analysis to monitor the changes that occur during different pathological conditions.