Somatic stem cells reside at the base of the crypts throughout the colonic mucosa. These cells are essential for the normal regeneration of the colonic epithelium. The stem cells reside within a special 'niche' comprised of intestinal sub-epithelial myofibroblasts that tightly control their function. It has been postulated that mutations within these adult colonic stem cells may induce neoplastic changes. Such cells can then dissociate from the epithelium and travel into the mesenchyme and thus form invasive cancers. This theory is based on the observation that within a colon cancer, less than 1% of the neoplastic cells have the ability to regenerate the tumour. It is this group of cells that exhibits characteristics of colonic stem cells. Although anti-neoplastic agents can induce remissions by inhibiting cell division, the stem cells appear to be remarkably resistant to both standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy. These stem cells may therefore persist after treatment and form the nucleus for cancer recurrence. Hence, future treatment modalities should focus specifically on controlling the cancer stem cells. In this review, we discuss the biology of normal and malignant colonic stem cells.