Humans are colonized by a diverse collection of microbes, the largest numbers of which reside in the distal gut. The vast majority of humans coexist in a beneficial equilibrium with these microbes. However, disruption of this mutualistic relationship can manifest itself in human diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease. Thus the study of inflammatory bowel disease and its genetics can provide insight into host pathways that mediate host–microbiota symbiosis. Bacteria of the human intestinal ecosystem face numerous challenges imposed by human dietary intake, the mucosal immune system, competition from fellow members of the gut microbiota, transient ingested microbes and invading pathogens. Considering features of human resident gut bacteria provides the opportunity to understand how microbes have achieved their symbiont status. While model symbionts have provided perspective into host–microbial homeostasis, high-throughput approaches are becoming increasingly practical for functionally characterizing the gut microbiota as a community.