Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are idiopathic, chronic, relapsing, inflammatory conditions that are immunologically mediated. Although their exact etiologies remain uncertain, results from research in animal models, human genetics, basic science and clinical trials have provided important new insights into the pathogenesis of chronic, immune-mediated, intestinal inflammation. These studies indicate that Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are heterogeneous diseases characterized by various genetic abnormalities that lead to overly aggressive T-cell responses to a subset of commensal enteric bacteria. The onset and reactivation of disease are triggered by environmental factors that transiently break the mucosal barrier, stimulate immune responses or alter the balance between beneficial and pathogenic enteric bacteria. Different genetic abnormalities can lead to similar disease phenotypes; these genetic changes can be broadly characterized as causing defects in mucosal barrier function, immunoregulation or bacterial clearance. These new insights will help develop better diagnostic approaches that identify clinically important subsets of patients for whom the natural history of disease and response to treatment are predictable.