There are 15 different DNA polymerases encoded in mammalian genomes, which are specialized for replication, repair or the tolerance of DNA damage. New evidence is emerging for lesion-specific and tissue-specific functions of DNA polymerases. Many point mutations that occur in cancer cells arise from the error-generating activities of DNA polymerases. However, the ability of some of these enzymes to bypass DNA damage may actually defend against chromosome instability in cells, and at least one DNA polymerase, Pol ζ, is a suppressor of spontaneous tumorigenesis. Because DNA polymerases can help cancer cells tolerate DNA damage, some of these enzymes might be viable targets for therapeutic strategies.