Human embryonic stem cells originate from the human preimplantation embryo. The derivation of the first human embryonic stem cells was reported in 1998. Since then we have learnt a great deal about how to isolate and culture these cells. Additionally, their stem cell phenotype and differentiation competence have been determined. Although it is expected that many basic biological properties, such as self-renewal and cell specification, are evolutionary conserved, at least from the mouse, we lack significant knowledge about the molecular events that regulate the unique stem cell features of human embryonic stem cells. The pluripotent nature of human embryonic stem cells has attracted great interest in using them as a source of cells and tissues in cell therapy. Recent progress in human somatic cell nuclear transfer suggests that there may be a solution to the immunotolerance problems associated with the use of human embryonic stem cells in cell-replacement therapy. Thus, human embryonic stem cells supply the research community with unique research tools to study basic biological processes in human cells, model human genetic diseases and develop new cell-replacement therapies.