Technical advances have made it possible to separate hematopoietic tissues such as the bone marrow into ever smaller populations, complicating our understanding of immune system replenishment. Patterns of surface marker expression and transcription profiles as well as results obtained with reporter mice suggest that lymphopoietic cells are not closely synchronized, and there is considerable cell to cell variation. Loss of differentiation options is gradual, and ultimate fate can be established at different stages of lineage progression. For example, individual hematopoietic stem cells can be biased such that some are very poor sources of lymphocytes as contrasted to ones with balanced outputs. Still other hematopoietic stem cells are effective at generating B and T cells but are defective with respect to expansion and difficult to distinguish from early lymphoid progenitors. That diversity carries forward to later events, and similar appearing cells in the immune system can arise from alternate differentiation pathways. In fact, new categories of lymphoid progenitors are still being discovered. Heterogeneity provides adaptability as hematopoiesis can be dramatically altered during infections, influencing numbers and types of cells that are produced. © 2010 John Wiley & Sons AS.