Helicobacter pylori colonizes the stomachs of more than 50% of the world's population, making it one of the most successful of all human pathogens. One striking characteristic of H. pylori biology is its remarkable allelic diversity and genetic variability. Not only does almost every infected person harbour their own individual H. pylori strain, but strains can undergo genetic alteration in vivo, driven by an elevated mutation rate and frequent intraspecific recombination. This genetic variability, which affects both housekeeping and virulence genes, has long been thought to contribute to host adaptation, and several recently published studies support this concept. We review the available knowledge relating to the genetic variation of H. pylori, with special emphasis on the changes that occur during chronic colonization, and argue that H. pylori uses mutation and recombination processes to adapt to its individual host by modifying molecules that interact with the host. Finally, we put forward the hypothesis that the lack of opportunity for intraspecies recombination as a result of the decreasing prevalence of H. pylori could accelerate its disappearance from Western populations.