Hematopoietic cells, including lymphoid and myeloid cells, can develop into phenotypically distinct 'subpopulations' with different functions. However, evidence indicates that some of these subpopulations can manifest substantial plasticity (that is, undergo changes in their phenotype and function). Here we focus on the occurrence of phenotypically distinct subpopulations in three lineages of myeloid cells with important roles in innate and acquired immunity: macrophages, mast cells and neutrophils. Cytokine signals, epigenetic modifications and other microenvironmental factors can substantially and, in some cases, rapidly and reversibly alter the phenotype of these cells and influence their function. This suggests that regulation of the phenotype and function of differentiated hematopoietic cells by microenvironmental factors, including those generated during immune responses, represents a common mechanism for modulating innate or adaptive immunity.