Porphyromonas gingivalis is a Gram-negative anaerobic bacterium that colonizes the human oral cavity. It is implicated in the development of periodontitis, a chronic periodontal disease affecting half of the adult population in the USA. To survive in the oral cavity, these bacteria must colonize dental plaque biofilms in competition with other bacterial species. Long-term survival requires P. gingivalis to evade host immune responses, while simultaneously adapting to the changing physiology of the host and to alterations in the plaque biofilm. In reflection of this highly variable niche, P. gingivalis is a genetically diverse species and in this review the authors summarize genetic diversity as it relates to pathogenicity in P. gingivalis. Recent studies revealing a variety of mechanisms by which adaptive changes in genetic content can occur are also reviewed. Understanding the genetic plasticity of P. gingivalis will provide a better framework for understanding the host-microbe interactions associated with periodontal disease.