The bacterial composition of human faeces can vary greatly with factors such as age and disease, although relatively few studies have monitored these events, particularly at species level. In this investigation, bacteria were isolated from faecal samples from healthy young adults and elderly subjects, and elderly patients with Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhoea (CDAD). The organisms were identified to species level on the basis of their cellular fatty acid profiles with the MIDI system. In some groups of bacteria, species diversity was found to change with age despite the overall numbers of organisms being similar at genus level. Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, B. ovatus and Prevotella tannerae were common gram-negative anaerobes isolated from young adults. Bacteroides species diversity increased in the faeces of healthy elderly people. Bifidobacterial species diversity decreased with age, with Bifidobacterium adolescentis and Bif. angulatum being the most common isolates. CDAD patients were characterised by greater diversity of facultative species, lactobacilli and clostridia, but greatly reduced numbers of bacteroides, prevotella and bifidobacteria. Such bacterial population changes in the normal microbiota could result in metabolic conditions favourable for the establishment of pathogenic micro-organisms, such as clostridia, and would have considerable effects on the biochemical capacity of the large intestine as a whole. Alterations in the community structure of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli have relevance for dietary and therapeutic interventions such as the use of pre- or probiotics that aim to modify the composition or metabolic activities of the intestinal microflora in a beneficial way, particularly in elderly people or individuals at risk of CDAD.