Building and maintaining a homeostatic relationship between a host and its colonizing microbiota entails ongoing complex interactions between the host and the microorganisms. The mucosal immune system, including epithelial cells, plays an essential part in negotiating this equilibrium. Paneth cells (specialized cells in the epithelium of the small intestine) are an important source of antimicrobial peptides in the intestine. These cells have become the focus of investigations that explore the mechanisms of host-microorganism homeostasis in the small intestine and its collapse in the processes of infection and chronic inflammation. In this Review, we provide an overview of the intestinal microbiota and describe the cell biology of Paneth cells, emphasizing the composition of their secretions and the roles of these cells in intestinal host defence and homeostasis. We also highlight the implications of Paneth cell dysfunction in susceptibility to chronic inflammatory bowel disease.