The human gut is the natural environment for a diverse and dynamic microbial ecosystem, whose structure and functions are presently a major target of research in biomedicine. Experimental studies in germ-free animals performed some decades ago revealed the importance of these microbial communities for normal growth and development and for the maintenance of health in adult life. The host provides habitat and nutrition to the microbial communities and derives many benefits from its symbionts that contribute to metabolic, defensive and trophic functions. Development of novel gene sequencing technologies as well as availability of powerful bioinformatic analysis tools provide new insights into the composition and structure of the human gut microbiota. There is no clear definition of the characteristics of a normal 'healthy' gut microbiota in human subjects, but several disease states have been associated with changes in the composition of faecal and intestinal mucosal communities, including inflammatory bowel diseases, obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Probiotics and prebiotics are used to improve symbiosis between enteric microbiota and the host or restore states of dysbiosis.