This review surveys three central issues in philosophy of stem cell biology: the nature of stem cells, stem cell experiments, and explanations of stem cell capacities. First, I argue that the fundamental question ‘what is a stem cell?’ has no single substantive answer. Instead, the core idea is explicated via an abstract model, which accounts for many features of stem cell experiments. The second part of this essay examines several of these features: uncertainty, model organisms, and manipulability. The results shed light on the form of our emerging knowledge of stem cells: mechanistic explanations. The third part of the essay sketches some key features of these explanations, which are constructed by a collaborative experimenting community.