Myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) are a heterogeneous population of cells generated during a large array of pathologic conditions ranging from cancer to obesity. These cells represent a pathologic state of activation of monocytes and relatively immature neutrophils. MDSCs are characterized by a distinct set of genomic and biochemical features, and can, on the basis of recent findings, be distinguished by specific surface molecules. The salient feature of these cells is their ability to inhibit T cell function and thus contribute to the pathogenesis of various diseases. In this Review, we discuss the origin and nature of these cells; their distinctive features; and their biological roles in cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmunity, obesity and pregnancy.