Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can undergo unlimited self-renewal and retain pluripotent developmental potential. The unique characteristics of ESCs, including a distinct transcriptional network, a poised epigenetic state, and a specific cell cycle profile, distinguish them from somatic cells. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these special properties of ESCs are not fully understood. Here, we report that nucleolin, a nucleolar protein highly expressed in undifferentiated ESCs, plays an essential role for the maintenance of ESC self-renewal. When nucleolin is knocked down by specific short hairpin RNA (shRNA), ESCs display dramatically reduced cell proliferation rate, increased cell apoptosis, and G 1 phase accumulation. Down-regulation of nucleolin also leads to evident ESC differentiation as well as decreased self-renewal ability. Interestingly, expression of pluripotency markers (Oct4 and Nanog) is unaltered in these differentiated cells. Mechanistically, depletion of nucleolin up-regulates the p53 protein level and activates the p53-dependent pathway, at least in part, via increasing p53 protein stability. Silencing of p53 rescues G 1 phase accumulation and apoptosis caused by nucleolin deficiency entirely, although it partially blocks abnormal differentiation in nucleolin-depleted ESCs. It is noteworthy that knocking down nucleolin in NIH3T3 cells affected cell survival and proliferation in a much milder way, despite the comparable silencing efficiency obtained in ESCs and NIH3T3 cells. Collectively, our data demonstrate that nucleolin is a critical regulator of ESC self-renewal and that suppression of the p53-dependent pathway is the major molecular mechanism underlying functions of nucleolin in ESCs. © 2011 by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.