Human and mouse embryonic stem cells (HESCs and MESCs, respectively) self-renew indefinitely while maintaining the ability to generate all three germ-layer derivatives. Despite the importance of ESCs in developmental biology and their potential impact on tissue replacement therapy, the molecular mechanism underlying ESC self-renewal is poorly understood. Here we show that activation of the canonical Wnt pathway is sufficient to maintain self-renewal of both HESCs and MESCs. Although Stat-3 signaling is involved in MESC self-renewal, stimulation of this pathway does not support self-renewal of HESCs. Instead we find that Wnt pathway activation by 6-bromoindirubin-3'-oxime (BIO), a specific pharmacological inhibitor of glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3), maintains the undifferentiated phenotype in both types of ESCs and sustains expression of the pluripotent state-specific transcription factors Oct-3/4, Rex-1 and Nanog. Wnt signaling is endogenously activated in undifferentiated MESCs and is downregulated upon differentiation. In addition, BIO-mediated Wnt activation is functionally reversible, as withdrawal of the compound leads to normal multidifferentiation programs in both HESCs and MESCs. These results suggest that the use of GSK-3-specific inhibitors such as BIO may have practical applications in regenerative medicine.