Somatic stem cells replenish many tissues throughout life to repair damage and to maintain tissue homeostasis. Stem cell function is frequently described as following a hierarchical model in which a single master cell undergoes self-renewal and differentiation into multiple cell types and is responsible for most regenerative activity. However, recent data from studies on blood, skin and intestinal epithelium all point to the concomitant action of multiple types of stem cells with distinct everyday roles. Under stress conditions such as acute injury, the surprising developmental flexibility of these stem cells enables them to adapt to diverse roles and to acquire different regeneration capabilities. This paradigm shift raises many new questions about the developmental origins, inter-relationships and molecular regulation of these multiple stem cell types.