The gastrointestinal tract is a complex ecosystem that associates a resident microbiota and cells of various phenotypes lining the epithelial wall expressing complex metabolic activities. The resident microbiota in the digestive tract is a heterogeneous microbial ecosystem containing up to 1 x 10(14) colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria. The intestinal microbiota plays an important role in normal gut function and maintaining host health. The host is protected from attack by potentially harmful microbial microorganisms by the physical and chemical barriers created by the gastrointestinal epithelium. The cells lining the gastrointestinal epithelium and the resident microbiota are two partners that properly and/or synergistically function to promote an efficient host system of defence. The gastrointestinal cells that make up the epithelium, provide a physical barrier that protects the host against the unwanted intrusion of microorganisms into the gastrointestinal microbiota, and against the penetration of harmful microorganisms which usurp the cellular molecules and signalling pathways of the host to become pathogenic. One of the basic physiological functions of the resident microbiota is that it functions as a microbial barrier against microbial pathogens. The mechanisms by which the species of the microbiota exert this barrier effect remain largely to be determined. There is increasing evidence that lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, which inhabit the gastrointestinal microbiota, develop antimicrobial activities that participate in the host's gastrointestinal system of defence. The objective of this review is to analyze the in vitro and in vivo experimental and clinical studies in which the antimicrobial activities of selected lactobacilli and bifidobacteria strains have been documented.