Embryonic stem (ES) cells are unique cells derived from the inner cell mass of the mammalian blastocyst. These cells are immortal and pluripotent, retain their developmental potential after prolonged culture, and can be continuously cultured in an undifferentiated state. Many in vitro differentiation systems have been developed for mouse ES cells, including reproducible methods for mouse ES cell differentiation into haematopoietic and neural precursors, cardiomyocytes, insulin-secreting cells, endothelial cells and various other cell types. The derivation of new human ES cell lines provides the opportunity to develop unique models for developmental research and for cell therapies. In this review we consider the derivation and spontaneous differentiation of human ES cells.