The initial period of mammalian embryonic development is primarily devoted to cell commitment to the pluripotent lineage, as well as to the formation of extraembryonic tissues essential for embryo survival in utero. This phase of development is also characterized by extensive morphological transitions. Cells within the preimplantation embryo exhibit extraordinary cell plasticity and adaptation in response to experimental manipulation, highlighting the use of a regulative developmental strategy rather than a predetermined one resulting from the non-uniform distribution of maternal information in the cytoplasm. Consequently, early mammalian development represents a useful model to study how the three primary cell lineages; the epiblast, primitive endoderm (also referred to as the hypoblast) and trophoblast, emerge from a totipotent single cell, the zygote. In this review, we will discuss how the isolation and genetic manipulation of murine stem cells representing each of these three lineages has contributed to our understanding of the molecular basis of early developmental events.