Preimplantation development shifts from a maternal to embryonic programme rapidly after fertilization. Although the majority of oogenetic products are lost during the maternal to embryonic transition (MET), several do survive this interval to contribute directly to supporting preimplantation development. Embryonic genome activation (EGA) is characterized by the transient expression of several genes that are necessary for MET, and while EGA represents the first major wave of gene expression, a second mid-preimplantation wave of transcription that supports development to the blastocyst stage has been discovered. The application of genomic approaches has greatly assisted in the discovery of stage specific gene expression patterns and the challenge now is to largely define gene function and regulation during preimplantation development. The basic mechanisms controlling compaction, lineage specification and blastocyst formation are defined. The requirement for embryo culture has revealed plasticity in the developmental programme that may exceed the adaptive capacity of the embryo and has fostered important research directions aimed at alleviating culture-induced changes in embryonic programming. New levels of regulation are emerging and greater insight into the roles played by RNA-binding proteins and miRNAs is required. All of this research is relevant due to the necessity to produce healthy preimplantation embryos for embryo transfer, to ensure that assisted reproductive technologies are applied in the most efficient and safest way possible.