Mammalian thioredoxin reductases (TrxRs) are selenocysteine-containing proteins (selenoproteins) that propel a large number of functions through reduction of several substrates including the active site disulfide of thioredoxins (Trxs). Well-known enzymatic systems that in turn are supported by Trxs and TrxRs include deoxyribonucleotide synthesis through ribonucleotide reductase, antioxidant defense through peroxiredoxins and methionine sulfoxide reductases, and redox modulation of a number of transcription factors. Although these functions may be essential for cells due to crucial roles in maintenance of cell viability and proliferation, findings during the last decade reveal that mammals have major redundancy in their cellular reductive systems. The synthesis of glutathione (GSH) and reductive functions of GSH-dependent pathways typically act in parallel with Trx-dependent pathways, with only one of these systems often being sufficient to support viability. Importantly, this does not imply that a modulation of the Trx system will remain without consequences, even when GSH-dependent pathways remain functional. As suggested by several recent findings, the Trx system in general and the TrxRs in particular, function as key regulators of signaling pathways. In this review article we will discuss findings that collectively suggest that modulation in mammalian systems of cytosolic TrxR1 (TXNRD1) or mitochondrial TrxR2 (TXNRD2) influence cell patterning and cellular stress responses. Effects of lower activities include increased adipogenesis, insulin responsiveness, glycogen accumulation, hyperproliferation, and distorted embryonic development, while increased activities correlate with decreased proliferation and extended lifespan, as well as worse cancer prognosis. The molecular mechanisms that underlie these diverse effects, involving regulation of protein phosphorylation cascades and of key transcription factors that guide cellular differentiation pathways, will be discussed. We conclude that the selenium-dependent oxidoreductases TrxR1 and TrxR2 should be considered as key components of signaling pathways that control cell differentiation and cellular stress responses.