Mouse embryonic stem cells are continuous cell lines derived directly from the fetal founder tissue of the preimplantation embryo. They can be expanded in culture while retaining the functional attributes of pluripotent early embryo cells. In particular, they can participate fully in fetal development when reintroduced into the embryo. The capacity for multilineage differentiation is reproduced in culture where embryonic stem cells can produce a wide range of well-defined cell types. This has stimulated interest in the isolation of analogous cells of human origin. Such human pluripotent stem cells could constitute a renewable source of more differentiated cells that could be employed to replace diseased or damaged tissue by cellular transplantation. In this review, the relationships between mouse embryonic stem cells, resident pluripotent cells in the embryo, and human embryo-derived cell lines are evaluated, and the prospects and challenges of embryo stem cell research are considered.