Dendritic cells (DCs) are professional antigen-presenting cells that consist of functionally and phenotypically heterogeneous populations. Monocyte-derived DCs (moDCs) are a DC subset that have been attracting increasing interest owing to their potent influence on adaptive immune function and their rapid accumulation upon an inflammatory stimulus. Although early studies on moDCs mainly addressed infection, their emergence and function in other settings such as autoimmunity and allogeneic organ transplantation are now being increasingly appreciated. In this review, the relationship between murine monocyte subsets and the moDCs that arise from them is discussed. Their role in initiating and modulating innate and adaptive immune responses in various pathophysiological scenarios is also explored, including how they may separate their labour from conventional DCs. How these findings might relate to their human counterparts is also discussed. Overall, monocytes and moDCs exhibit complex and heterogeneous behaviours that are critical in responses against microbial invasion, autoimmunity and allograft rejection.