Stem cells are endowed with the potential for self-renewal and multipotency. Pluripotent embryonic stem cells have an early role in the formation of the three germ layers (ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm), whereas adult tissue stem cells and progenitor cells are critical mediators of organ homeostasis. The adrenal cortex is an exceptionally dynamic endocrine organ that is homeostatically maintained by paracrine and endocrine signals throughout postnatal life. In the past decade, much has been learned about the stem and progenitor cells of the adrenal cortex and the multiple roles that these cell populations have in normal development and homeostasis of the adrenal gland and in adrenal diseases. In this Review, we discuss the evidence for the presence of adrenocortical stem cells, as well as the various signalling molecules and transcriptional networks that are critical for the embryological establishment and postnatal maintenance of this vital population of cells. The implications of these pathways and cells in the pathophysiology of disease are also addressed.