Phenotypic heterogeneity, defined as metastable variation in cellular parameters generated by epigenetic mechanisms, is crucial for the persistence of bacterial populations under fluctuating selective pressures. Diversity ensures that some individuals will survive a potentially lethal stress, such as an antibiotic, that would otherwise obliterate the entire population. The refractoriness of bacterial infections to antibiotic therapy has been ascribed to antibiotic-tolerant variants known as 'persisters'. The persisters are not drug-resistant mutants and it is unclear why they survive antibiotic pressure that kills their genetically identical siblings. Recent conceptual and technological advances are beginning to yield some surprising new insights into the mechanistic basis of this clinically important manifestation of phenotypic heterogeneity.