Tissue engineering and cellular therapies, either on their own or in combination with therapeutic gene delivery, have the potential to significantly impact medicine. Implementation of technologies based on these approaches requires a readily available source of cells for the generation of cells and tissues outside a living body. Because of their unique capacity to regenerate functional tissue for the lifetime of an organism, stem cells are an attractive "raw material" for multiple biotechnological applications. By definition they are self-renewing because on cell division they can generate daughter stem cells. They are also multipotent because they can differentiate into numerous specialized, functional cells. Recent findings have shown that stem cells exist in most, if not all, tissues, and that stem cell tissue specificity may be more flexible than originally thought. Although the potential for producing novel cell-based products from stem cells is large, currently there are no effective technologically relevant methodologies for culturing stem cells outside the body, or for reproducibly stimulating them to differentiate into functional cells. A mechanistic understanding of the parameters important in the control of stem cell self-renewal and lineage commitment is thus necessary to guide the development of bioprocesses for the ex vivo culture of stem cells and their derivates.