BACKGROUND: Human embryos generated by IVF demonstrate a high incidence of chromosomal segregation errors during the cleavage divisions. To analyse underlying molecular mechanisms, we investigated the behaviour of the chromosomal passenger complex (CPC) in human oocytes and embryos. This important mitotic regulatory complex comprises the inner centromere protein (INCENP), survivin, borealin and Aurora B, or the meiotic kinase Aurora C. METHODS: We analysed mRNA expression by quantitative RT-PCR of all CPC members in human oocytes, tripronuclear (3PN) zygotes, 2-cell and 4-cell embryos developed from 3PN zygotes, plus good-quality cryopreserved 8-cell, morula and blastocyst stage embryos. Protein expression and localization of CPC members were investigated by immunofluorescence in oocytes and embryos arrested at prometaphase. Histone H3S10 phosphorylation was investigated as an indicator of a functional CPC. RESULTS: INCENP, survivin and borealin were detected at the inner centromere of prometaphase chromosomes in all stages investigated. Whereas Aurora B and C are both present in oocytes, Aurora C becomes the most prominent kinase in the CPC during the first three embryonic cell cycles. Moreover, Aurora C mRNA was up-regulated with Aurora B after activation of the embryonic genome and both proteins were detected in early Day 4 embryos. Subsequently, only Aurora B was detected in blastocysts. CONCLUSIONS: In contrast to somatic cells, our results point to a specific role for Aurora C in the CPC during human preimplantation embryo development. Although, the presence of Aurora C in itself may not explain the high chromosome segregation error rate, the data presented here provide novel information regarding possible mechanisms.