The mammalian target of the rapamycin (mTOR) pathway, which drives cell proliferation, is frequently hyperactivated in a variety of malignancies. Therefore, the inhibition of the mTOR pathway has been considered as an appropriate approach for cancer therapy. In this study, we examined the roles of mTOR in the maintenance and differentiation of cancer stem-like cells (CSCs), the conversion of conventional cancer cells to CSCs and continuous tumor growth in vivo. In H-Ras-transformed mouse liver tumor cells, we found that pharmacological inhibition of mTOR with rapamycin greatly increased not only the CD133+ populations both in vitro and in vivo but also the expression of stem cell-like genes. Enhancing mTOR activity by over-expressing Rheb significantly decreased CD133 expression, whereas knockdown of the mTOR yielded an opposite effect. In addition, mTOR inhibition severely blocked the differentiation of CD133+ to CD133- liver tumor cells. Strikingly, single-cell culture experiments revealed that CD133- liver tumor cells were capable of converting to CD133+ cells and the inhibition of mTOR signaling substantially promoted this conversion. In serial implantation of tumor xenografts in nude BALB/c mice, the residual tumor cells that were exposed to rapamycin in vivo displayed higher CD133 expression and had increased secondary tumorigenicity compared with the control group. Moreover, rapamycin treatment also enhanced the level of stem cell-associated genes and CD133 expression in certain human liver tumor cell lines, such as Huh7, PLC/PRC/7 and Hep3B. The mTOR pathway is significantly involved in the generation and the differentiation of tumorigenic liver CSCs. These results may be valuable for the design of more rational strategies to control clinical malignant HCC using mTOR inhibitors.