Probiotics are derived from traditional fermented foods, from beneficial commensals or from the environment. They act through diverse mechanisms affecting the composition or function of the commensal microbiota and by altering host epithelial and immunological responses. Certain probiotic interventions have shown promise in selected clinical conditions where aberrant microbiota have been reported, such as atopic dermatitis, necrotising enterocolitis, pouchitis and possibly irritable bowel syndrome. However, no studies have been conducted that can causally link clinical improvements to probiotic-induced microbiota changes. Whether a disease-prone microbiota pattern can be remodelled to a more robust, resilient and disease-free state by probiotic administration remains a key unanswered question. Progress in this area will be facilitated by: optimising strain, dose and product formulations, including protective commensal species; matching these formulations with selectively responsive subpopulations; and identifying ways to manipulate diet to modify bacterial profiles and metabolism.