Significant advances in the stem-cell biology of several tissues, including the mammary gland, have occurred over the past several years. Recent progress on stem-cell fate determination, molecular markers, signalling pathways and niche interactions in haematopoietic, neuronal and muscle tissue may provide parallel insight into the biology of mammary epithelial stem cells. Taking advantage of approaches similar to those employed to isolate and characterize haematopoietic and epidermal stem cells, we have identified a mammary epithelial cell population with several stem/progenitor cell qualities. In this article, we review some recent data on mammary epithelial stem/progenitor cells in genetically engineered mouse models. We also discuss several potential molecular markers, including stem-cell antigen-1 (Sca-1), which may be useful for both the isolation of functional mammary epithelial stem/progenitor cells and the analysis of tumour aetiology and phenotype in genetically engineered mouse models. In different transgenic mammary tumour models, Sca-1 expression levels, as well as several other putative markers of progenitors including keratin-6, possess dramatically altered expression profiles. These data suggest that the heterogeneity of mouse models of breast cancer may partially reflect the selection or expansion of different progenitors.