Recently, there has been strong interest in the therapeutic potential of probiotics for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). At the same time, there is a rapidly growing body of evidence to support an etiological role for gastrointestinal infection and the associated immune activation in the development of post-infectious IBS. In a more controversial area, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth has been associated with a subset of patients with IBS; the issue of whether it is appropriate to treat a subset of IBS patients with antibiotics and probiotics is currently a matter for debate. Thus, it appears that the gastrointestinal microbial flora may exert beneficial effects for symptoms of IBS under some circumstances, while in other situations gut microbes could give rise to symptoms of IBS. How do we make sense of the apparently diverse roles that 'bugs' may play in IBS? To address this question, we have conducted an in-depth review, attempting where possible to draw lessons from Asian studies.