The chronic inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, are recognized as important causes of gastrointestinal disease in children and adults. In this review we delineate the clinical manifestations and diagnostic features of IBD. In addition, we summarize important recent advances in our understanding of the immune mediators of intestinal inflammation. This information has led to new therapeutic approaches in IBD. Further, we discuss the considerable data that point to the significance of genetic factors in the development of IBD and the genetic loci which have been implicated through genome-wide searches. The commensal bacterial flora also appears to be a critical element, particularly in regards to Crohn's disease, although the precise role of the bacteria in the disease manifestations remains unclear. Current investigations promise to yield fresh insights in these areas.