Tandem repeats are intrinsically highly variable sequences since repeat units are often lost or gained during replication or following unequal recombination events. Because of their low complexity and their instability, these repeats, which are also called satellite repeats, are often considered to be useless ‘junk’ DNA. However, recent findings show that tandem repeats are frequently found within promoters of stress-induced genes and within the coding regions of genes encoding cell-surface and regulatory proteins. Interestingly, frequent changes in these repeats often confer phenotypic variability. Examples include variation in the microbial cell surface, rapid tuning of internal molecular clocks in flies, and enhanced morphological plasticity in mammals. This suggests that instead of being useless junk DNA, some variable tandem repeats are useful functional elements that confer ‘evolvability’, facilitating swift evolution and rapid adaptation to changing environments. Since changes in repeats are frequent and reversible, repeats provide a unique type of mutation that bridges the gap between rare genetic mutations, such as single nucleotide polymorphisms, and highly unstable but reversible epigenetic inheritance.