Neural induction is largely considered a default process, whereas little is known about intrinsic factors that drive neural differentiation. Kamiya and colleagues now demonstrate that a transcription factor, Zfp521, is capable of directing embryonic stem (ES) cells into neural progenitors. They discovered that Zfp521 transcripts were enriched in early neural lineage of ES cell differentiation. Forced expression of Zfp521 turned ES cells into neural progenitors in culture conditions that would normally inhibit neural differentiation. Zfp521 was expressed in mouse embryos during gastrulation. The protein was shown to associate with a co-activator p300 and directly induce expression of early neural genes. Knockdown of the Zfp521 by shRNA halted cells at the epiblast stage and suppressed neural differentiation. Zfp521 is a nuclear protein with 30 Krüppel-like zinc fingers mediating multiple protein-protein interactions, and regulates transcription in diverse tissues and organs. The protein promotes proliferation, delays differentiation and reduces apoptosis. The findings by Kamiya and colleagues that Zfp521 directs and sustains early neural differentiation now opens up a series of studies to investigate roles of Zfp521 in stem cells and brain development of mice and men. © 2011 BioMed Central Ltd.