The vertebrate intestinal tract is colonized by hundreds of species of bacteria that must be compartmentalized and tolerated to prevent invasive growth and harmful inflammatory responses. Signaling initiated by commensal bacteria shapes antigen-specific mucosal and systemic adaptive immunity. A distinct type of effector CD4(+) T cells, Th17 cells, have a key role in coordinating the inflammatory immune responses that afford protection to pathogens at the mucosal interface. Balancing this powerful inflammatory response, regulatory T cells limit collateral damage and provide antigen-specific tolerance to both food and microbial antigens. Here, we discuss the implications for how the microbiota as a whole contributes to compartmentalization from the host and how individual constituents of the microbiota influence the functions and repertoire of effector T cells and organ-specific autoimmune disease.
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