The gastrointestinal tract carries out the complex process of localizing the polymicrobial populations of the indigenous microbiota to the lumenal side of the GI mucosa while absorbing nutrients from the lumen and preventing damage to the mucosa. This process is accomplished through a combination of physical, innate and adaptive host defences and a ‘strategic alliance’ with members of the microbiota. To cope with the constant exposure to a diverse microbial community, the GI tract, through the actions of a number of specialized cells in the epithelium and lamina propria, has layers of humoral, physical and cellular defences that limit attachment, invasion and dissemination of the indigenous microbiota. However, the role of the microbiota in this dynamic balance is vital and serves as another level of ‘innate’ defence. We are just beginning to understand how bacterial metabolites aid in the control of potential pathogens within the microbiota and limit inflammatory responses to the microbiota, concepts that will impact our understanding of the biological effects of antibiotics, diet and probiotics on mucosal inflammatory responses.