Evolutionary conflicts involving mimicry are found throughout nature. Diverse pathogens produce a range of 'mimics' that resemble host components in both form and function. Such mimics subvert crucial cellular processes, including the cell cycle, apoptosis, cytoskeletal dynamics and immunity. Here, we review the mounting evidence that mimicry of host processes is a highly successful strategy for pathogens. Discriminating mimics can be crucial for host survival, and host factors exist that effectively counteract mimics, using strategies that combine rapid evolution and an unexpected degree of flexibility in protein-protein interactions. Even in these instances, mimicry may alter the evolutionary course of fundamental cellular processes in host organisms.