The community of microbes that inhabits the mammalian intestinal tract exists in a symbiosis with their host. The structure of this community represents the combined effects of selection pressure on the part of the host and on the part of the microbes themselves. Through recent advances in the field of microbial ecology we are beginning to understand the forces that shape this complex community. We will review what is known about the interaction between the host and the indigenous microbial community. Following this discussion we will introduce methods that have been used to study the structure, function and dynamics of this community.