Pluripotent stem cells constitute a platform to model disease and developmental processes and can potentially be used in regenerative medicine. However, not all pluripotent cell lines are equal in their capacity to differentiate into desired cell types in vitro. Genetic and epigenetic variations contribute to functional variability between cell lines and heterogeneity within clones. These genetic and epigenetic variations could 'lock' the pluripotency network resulting in residual pluripotent cells or alter the signalling response of developmental pathways leading to lineage bias. The molecular contributors to functional variability and heterogeneity in both embryonic stem (ES) cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are only beginning to emerge, yet they are crucial to the future of the stem cell field.