Humans and other mammals are colonized by a vast, complex, and dynamic consortium of microorganisms. One evolutionary driving force for maintaining this metabolically active microbial society is to salvage energy from nutrients, particularly carbohydrates, that are otherwise nondigestible by the host. Much of our understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which members of the intestinal microbiota degrade complex polysaccharides comes from studies of Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, a prominent and genetically manipulatable component of the normal human and mouse gut. Colonization of germ-free mice with B. thetaiotaomicron has shown how this anaerobe modifies many aspects of intestinal cellular differentiation/gene expression to benefit both host and microbe. These and other studies underscore the importance of understanding precisely how nutrient metabolism serves to establish and sustain symbiotic relationships between mammals and their bacterial partners.