Fertilized mouse zygotes can reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state. Human zygotes might therefore be useful for producing patient-derived pluripotent stem cells. However, logistical, legal and social considerations have limited the availability of human eggs for research. Here we show that a significant number of normal fertilized eggs (zygotes) can be obtained for reprogramming studies. Using these zygotes, we found that when the zygotic genome was replaced with that of a somatic cell, development progressed normally throughout the cleavage stages, but then arrested before the morula stage. This arrest was associated with a failure to activate transcription in the transferred somatic genome. In contrast to human zygotes, mouse zygotes reprogrammed the somatic cell genome to a pluripotent state within hours after transfer. Our results suggest that there may be a previously unappreciated barrier to successful human nuclear transfer, and that future studies could focus on the requirements for genome activation.