Genetic and epigenetic mechanisms regulate the transition from the totipotent zygote to pluripotent primitive ectoderm cells in the inner cell mass of mouse blastocysts. These pluripotent cells can be propagated indefinitely in vitro, underpinned by a unique epigenetic state. Following implantation of the blastocyst, diverse epigenetic modifiers control differentiation of pluripotent epiblast cells into somatic cells, while specification of germ cells requires repression of the somatic program. Regenerating totipotency during development of germ cells entails re-expression of pluripotency-specific genes and extensive erasure of epigenetic modifications. Increasing knowledge of key underlying mechanisms heightens prospects for creating pluripotent cells directly from adult somatic cells.