The study of colonic flora composition and metabolism presents considerable methodological problems. Attempts to circumvent these problems have led to the development of numerous in vitro and in vivo models to simulate the human colon and its microbial population. In terms of in vivo models, conventional laboratory animals have many limitations. Data of greater relevance to man can be obtained by using germ-free rodents associated with human colonic bacteria. The applications of such animals to studies of toxicity of chemicals and gastrointestinal infections are discussed. The advantages and disadvantages of the various in vitro systems for studying gut microflora and its metabolic activity (from simple static cultures to the more sophisticated continuous and semicontinuous flow models) are reviewed. The apparatus involved is described together with practical information on media, running conditions, and sampling. The bacteriological and metabolic criteria for establishing the similarity of the models to the in situ colonic flora are also discussed. The final sections of the review are devoted to the major applications (current and future) of the models, including fermentation studies on dietary fiber, metabolism of nutrients and foreign compounds (including carcinogens) in food, and the investigation of colonization resistance.