Teratocarcinomas are a subset of tumours that result from the neoplastic transformation of primordial germ cells. Such germ cell tumours (GCT) are histologically heterogeneous, reflecting a capacity for differentiation (pluripotency) of their embryonal carcinoma (EC) stem cells. However, malignant evolution of these tumours may ultimately correlate with a decrease in pluripotency, because this would tend to increase the propensity of EC cells for self-renewal. Human embryonic stem (ES) cells, derived from early blastocysts, closely resemble EC cells and, on prolonged culture in vitro, acquire progressive genetic changes that show striking similarity to those seen in GCT (e.g. gain of material from chromosome 12). In parallel, these abnormal ES cells show enhanced population growth rates and plating efficiencies, indicative of their adaptation to culture conditions. Understanding the mechanisms that drive such culture adaptation of ES cells may also provide insights into the development and progression of GCT.