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The development of individual organs in animal embryos involves the formation of tissue-specific stem cells that sustain cell renewal of their own tissue for the lifetime of the organism. Although details of their origin are not always known, tissue-specific stem cells usually share the expression of key transcription factors with cells of the embryonic rudiment from which they arise, and are probably in a similar developmental state. On the other hand, the isolation of pluripotent stem cells from the postnatal organism has encouraged the formulation of models of embryonic and postnatal development that are at variance with the conventional ones. Possible explanations for the existence of such cells, and the issue of whether they also exist in vivo, are discussed.