Female reproductive potential is dictated by the size of the primordial follicle pool and the correct regulation of oocyte maturation and activation-events essential for production of viable offspring. Although a substantial body of work underpins our understanding of these processes, the molecular mechanisms of follicular and oocyte development are not fully understood. This review summarizes recent findings which have improved our conception of how folliculogenesis and oocyte competence are regulated, and discusses their implications for assisted reproductive techniques. We highlight evidence provided by genetically modified mouse models and in vitro studies which have refined our understanding of Pi3k/Akt and mTOR signalling in the oocyte and have discovered a role for Jak/Stat/Socs signalling in granulosa cells during primordial follicle activation. We also appraise a novel role for the metal ion zinc in the regulation of meiosis I and meiosis II progression through early meiosis inhibitor (Emi2) and Mos-Mapk signalling, and examine studies which expand our understanding of intracellular calcium signalling and extrinsic Plcη in stimulating oocyte activation. © The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. All rights reserved.