Understanding preimplantation development is important both for basic reproductive biology and for practical applications including regenerative medicine and livestock breeding. Global expression profiles revealed and characterized the distinctive patterns of maternal RNA degradation and zygotic gene activation, including two major transient waves of de novo transcription. The first wave corresponds to zygotic genome activation (ZGA); the second wave, named mid-preimplantation gene activation (MGA), precedes the dynamic morphological and functional changes from the morula to blastocyst stage. Further expression profiling of embryos treated with inhibitors of transcription, translation, and DNA replication revealed that the translation of maternal RNAs is required for the initiation of ZGA. We propose a cascade of gene activation from maternal RNA/protein sets to ZGA gene sets and thence to MGA gene sets. The large number of genes identified as involved in each phase is a first step toward analysis of the complex gene regulatory networks.