Summary Several distinct cell types in the adult central nervous system have been suggested to act as stem or progenitor cells generating new cells under physiological or pathological conditions. We have assessed the origin of new cells in the adult mouse spinal cord by genetic fate mapping. Oligodendrocyte progenitors self-renew, give rise to new mature oligodendrocytes, and constitute the dominating proliferating cell population in the intact adult spinal cord. In contrast, astrocytes and ependymal cells, which are restricted to limited self-duplication in the intact spinal cord, generate the largest number of cells after spinal cord injury. Only ependymal cells generate progeny of multiple fates, and neural stem cell activity in the intact and injured adult spinal cord is confined to this cell population. We provide an integrated view of how several distinct cell types contribute in complementary ways to cell maintenance and the reaction to injury.