Embryonic stem (ES) cells derived from the inner cell mass (ICM) of blastocysts grow infinitely while maintaining pluripotency. Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) can maintain self-renewal of mouse ES cells through activation of Stat3. However, LIF/Stat3 is dispensable for maintenance of ICM and human ES cells, suggesting that the pathway is not fundamental for pluripotency. In search of a critical factor(s) that underlies pluripotency in both ICM and ES cells, we performed in silico differential display and identified several genes specifically expressed in mouse ES cells and preimplantation embryos. We found that one of them, encoding the homeoprotein Nanog, was capable of maintaining ES cell self-renewal independently of LIF/Stat3. nanog-deficient ICM failed to generate epiblast and only produced parietal endoderm-like cells. nanog-deficient ES cells lost pluripotency and differentiated into extraembryonic endoderm lineage. These data demonstrate that Nanog is a critical factor underlying pluripotency in both ICM and ES cells.