The intestinal epithelium--which constitutes the interface between the enteric microbiota and host tissues--actively contributes to the maintenance of mucosal homeostasis and defends against pathogenic microbes. The recognition of conserved microbial products by cytosolic or transmembrane pattern recognition receptors in epithelial cells initiates signal transduction and influences effector cell function. However, the signalling pathways, effector molecules and regulatory mechanisms involved are not yet fully understood, and the functional outcome is poorly defined. This review analyses the complex and dynamic role of intestinal epithelial innate immune recognition and signalling, on the basis of results in intestinal epithelial cell-specific transgene or gene-deficient animals. This approach identifies specific epithelial cell functions within the diverse cellular composition of the mucosal tissue, in the presence of the complex and dynamic gut microbiota. These insights have thus provided a more comprehensive understanding of the role of the intestinal epithelium in innate immunity during homeostasis and disease.