Somatic cell nuclear transfer can be used to produce embryonic stem (ES) cells, cloned animals, and can even increase the population size of endangered animals. However, the application of this technique is limited by the low developmental rate of cloned embryos, a situation that may result from abnormal expression of some zygotic genes. In this study, sheep–sheep intra-species cloned embryos, goat–sheep inter-species cloned embryos, or sheep in vitro fertilized embryos were constructed and cultured in vitro and the developmental ability and expression of three pluripotency genes, SSEA-1, Nanog and Oct4, were examined. The results showed firstly that the developmental ability of in vitro fertilized embryos was significantly higher than that of cloned embryos. In addition, the percentage of intra-species cloned embryos that developed to morula or blastocyst stages was also significantly higher than that of the inter-species cloned embryos. Secondly, all three types of embryos expressed SSEA-1 at the 8-cell and morula stages. At the 8-cell stage, a higher percentage of in vitro fertilized embryos expressed SSEA-1 than occurred for cloned embryos. However, at the morula stage, all detected embryos could express SSEA-1. Thirdly, the three types of embryos expressed Oct4 mRNA at the morula and blastocyst stages, and embryos at the blastocyst stage expressed Nanog mRNA. The rate of expression of Oct4 and Nanog mRNA at these developmental stages was higher in in vitro fertilized embryos than in cloned embryos. These results indicated that, during early development, the failure to reactivate some pluripotency genes maybe is a reason for the low cloning efficiency found with cloned embryos.