Adult organisms have to adapt to survive, and the same is true for their tissues. Rates and types of cell production must be rapidly and reversibly adjusted to meet tissue demands in response to both local and systemic challenges. Recent work reveals how stem cell (SC) populations meet these requirements by switching between functional states tuned to homoeostasis or regeneration. This plasticity extends to differentiating cells, which are capable of reverting to SCs after injury. The concept of the niche, the micro-environment that sustains and regulates stem cells, is broadening, with a new appreciation of the role of physical factors and hormonal signals. Here, we review different functions of SCs, the cellular mechanisms that underlie them and the signals that bias the fate of SCs as they switch between roles.