The broad diversity of cell types within vertebrates arises from a unique genetic blueprint by combining intrinsic cellular information with developmental and other extrinsic signals. Lying at the interface between cellular signals and the DNA is the chromatin, a dynamic nucleoprotein complex that helps to mediate gene regulation. The most basic subunit of chromatin, the nucleosome, consists of DNA wrapped around histones, a set of proteins that play crucial roles as scaffolding molecules and regulators of gene expression. Growing evidence indicates that canonical histones are commonly replaced by protein variants before and during cellular transitions. We highlight exciting new results suggesting that histone variants are essential players in the control of cellular plasticity during development and in the adult nervous system.