Research in different species has shown that Polo-like kinases are essential for successful cell division. In human cells, Polo-like kinase-1 (Plk1) has been implicated in the regulation of different processes, including mitotic entry, spindle formation and cytokinesis. Recently, a range of new downstream targets of Plk1 has been identified, as well as a molecular mechanism that explains recruitment of Plk1 to potential substrate proteins through its polo-box domain. On the basis of these reports, we discuss possible mechanisms by which Polo-like kinases can exert their multiple functions during mitosis. Polo-like kinases also function in DNA damage checkpoints. Plk1 has been shown to be a target of the G2 DNA damage checkpoint, while Cdc5, the Polo-like kinase in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has long been known to be required for adaptation to persistent DNA damage. Just recently, a similar requirement for Polo-like kinases during checkpoint adaptation was demonstrated in multicellular organisms. Moreover, Plk1 was also shown to be required for checkpoint recovery following checkpoint inactivation, that is, in cells where the damage is completely repaired. Thus, Plk1 appears to play a role at multiple points during a restart of the cell cycle following DNA damage. Based on these novel observations, we discuss possible consequences of using Plk1 as a target in anticancer strategies.