In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in stem cells, not just within the scientific and medical communities but also among politicians, religious groups and ethicists. Here, we summarize the different types of stem cells that have been described: their origins in embryonic and adult tissues and their differentiation potential in vivo and in culture. We review some current clinical applications of stem cells, highlighting the problems encountered when going from proof-of-principle in the laboratory to widespread clinical practice. While some of the key genetic and epigenetic factors that determine stem cell properties have been identified, there is still much to be learned about how these factors interact. There is a growing realization of the importance of environmental factors in regulating stem cell behaviour and this is being explored by imaging stem cells in vivo and recreating artificial niches in vitro. New therapies, based on stem cell transplantation or endogenous stem cells, are emerging areas, as is drug discovery based on patient-specific pluripotent cells and cancer stem cells. What makes stem cell research so exciting is its tremendous potential to benefit human health and the opportunities for interdisciplinary research that it presents.