AIM To devise a simplified and efficient method for long-term culture and maintenance of embryonic stem cells requiring less frequent passaging. METHODS Mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs) labeled with enhanced yellow fluorescent protein were cultured in three-dimensional (3-D) self-assembling scaffolds and compared with traditional two-dimentional (2-D) culture techniques requiring mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder layers or leukemia inhibitory factor. 3-D scaffolds encapsulating ESCs were prepared by mixing ESCs with polyethylene glycol tetra-acrylate (PEG-4-Acr) and thiol-functionalized dextran (Dex-SH). Distribution of ESCs in 3-D was monitored by confocal microscopy. Viability and proliferation of encapsulated cells during long-term culture were determined by propidium iodide as well as direct cell counts and PrestoBlue (PB) assays. Genetic expression of pluripotency markers (Oct4, Nanog, Klf4, and Sox2) in ESCs grown under 2-D and 3-D culture conditions was examined by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. Protein expression of selected stemness markers was determined by two different methods, immunofluorescence staining (Oct4 and Nanog) and western blot analysis (Oct4, Nanog, and Klf4). Pluripotency of 3-D scaffold grown ESCs was analyzed by in vivo teratoma assay and in vitro differentiation via embryoid bodies into cells of all three germ layers. RESULTS Self-assembling scaffolds encapsulating ESCs for 3-D culture without the loss of cell viability were prepared by mixing PEG-4-Acr and Dex-SH (1:1 v/v) to a final concentration of 5% (w/v). Scaffold integrity was dependent on the degree of thiol substitution of Dex-SH and cell concentration. Scaffolds prepared using Dex-SH with 7.5% and 33% thiol substitution and incubated in culture medium maintained their integrity for 11 and 13 d without cells and 22 ± 5 d and 37 ± 5 d with cells, respectively. ESCs formed compact colonies, which progressively increased in size over time due to cell proliferation as determined by confocal microscopy and PB staining. 3-D scaffold cultured ESCs expressed significantly higher levels (P < 0.01) of Oct4, Nanog, and Kl4, showing a 2.8, 3.0 and 1.8 fold increase, respectively, in comparison to 2-D grown cells. A similar increase in the protein expression levels of Oct4, Nanog, and Klf4 was observed in 3-D grown ESCs. However, when 3-D cultured ESCs were subsequently passaged in 2-D culture conditions, the level of these pluripotent markers was reduced to normal levels. 3-D grown ESCs produced teratomas and yielded cells of all three germ layers, expressing brachyury (mesoderm), NCAM (ectoderm), and GATA4 (endoderm) markers. Furthermore, these cells differentiated into osteogenic, chondrogenic, myogenic, and neural lineages expressing Col1, Col2, Myog, and Nestin, respectively. CONCLUSION This novel 3-D culture system demonstrated long-term maintenance of mouse ESCs without the routine passaging and manipulation necessary for traditional 2-D cell propagation.