The pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel disease involves interactions between the host susceptibility, mucosal immunity and intestinal microflora. There is therefore great interest in the changes in the endogenous flora in inflammatory bowel disease patients and in the establishment of potential genetic variations in host responses to endogenous bacteria. In this review, we summarize the modifications in the various regional ecosystems in the gastrointestinal tract during inflammatory bowel disease (luminal bacteria in faeces or inside the gastrointestinal tract, bacteria in mucus and bacteria directly attached to the mucosa). Results were obtained following a ‘candidate microorganism strategy’ and, as is occurring increasingly frequently, following a ‘full description strategy’, which has progressed largely due to the development of culture-independent techniques. The possibility of modifying the ecosystem using prebiotics or probiotics offers hope for new treatment developments, particularly in the prevention of relapse.