Heterogeneity of tumor tissue has been accounted for in recent years by a hierarchy-based model in which cancer stem cells (CSCs) have the ability both to self-renew and to give rise to differentiated tumor cells and are responsible for the overall organization of a tumor. Research into CSCs has progressed rapidly and concomitantly with recent advances in the biology of normal tissue stem cells, resulting in the identification of CSCs in a wide range of human tumors. Studies of mouse models of human cancer have provided further insight into the characteristics of CSCs as well as a basis for the development of novel therapies targeted to these cells. However, recent studies have revealed complexities, such as plasticity of stem cell properties and clonal diversity of CSCs, in certain tumor types that have led to revision of the original CSC model. In this review, we summarize the history of the discovery and characterization of CSCs, as well as address recent advances that have revealed the complexity of these cells and their therapeutic implications.