Two different behavioural or developmental patters can operate within a single bacterial population in which all of the cells are exposed to the same environmental conditions. Investigations of single cells using green fluorescent protein reveal that a bacterial population can be composed of two distinct fractions in different physiological states, and that cells can even switch between states. Such behaviour, termed ‘bistability’, can occur even in exponentially growing populations, in which cells have always been regarded as behaving almost identically and having the same pattern of gene expression. In this issue of Molecular Microbiology, Dubnau and Losick review four examples of such bistable populations found in two different bacterial species, and explain why this behaviour makes sense. These investigations have established the new concept of genetically identical cells that behave differently, which will profoundly change how we view bacterial populations.