Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term referring to two chronic idiopathic intestinal diseases: ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn's disease (CD). Both UC and CD are characterized by immune activation that leads to symptoms, but the location, severity and behavior of the inflammation varies among individuals and in characteristic ways between UC and CD. A majority of patients with IBD are diagnosed in young adulthood, but the response to therapy is variable and difficult to predict, with some patients demonstrating a prompt and effective remission while others have continuous symptoms that do not respond to existing medical options. Surgery remains a frequent and necessary occurrence among patients with IBD, but in UC it is considered curative, while in CD only temporizing. Clinical observations, epidemiological studies, and molecular genetics have provided strong evidence that both genetic and environmental factors are important determinants for disease susceptibility. In recent years, a number of genes have been identified that associate with CD and UC, although the clinical utility of these discoveries in patients or in susceptible family members has not been determined. Nonetheless, it is hoped that these fundamental advances in our understanding of IBD will lead to better therapies for patients and prevention strategies for those who are susceptible. Effective incorporation of clinical genetic testing for IBD into practice will require appropriate education and counseling.