Large numbers of microorganisms colonise the skin and mucous membranes of animals, with their highest density in the lower gastrointestinal tract. The impact of these microbes on the host can be demonstrated by comparing animals (usually mice) housed under germ-free conditions, or colonised with different compositions of microbes. Inbreeding and embryo manipulation programs have generated a wide variety of mouse strains with a fixed germ-line (isogenic) and hygiene comparisons robustly show remarkably strong interactions between the microbiota and the host, which can be summarised in three axioms. (I) Live microbes are largely confined to their spaces at body surfaces, provided the animal is not suffering from an infection. (II) There is promiscuous molecular exchange throughout the host and its microbiota in both directions . (III) Every host organ system is profoundly shaped by the presence of body surface microbes. It follows that one must draw a line between live microbial and host “spaces” (I) to understand the crosstalk (II and III) at this interesting interface of the host-microbial superorganism. Of course, since microbes can adapt to very different niches, there has to be more than one line. In this issue of EMBO Reports, Johansson and colleagues have studied mucus, which is the main physical frontier for most microbes in the intestinal tract: they report how different non-pathogenic microbiota compositions affect its permeability and the functional protection of the epithelial surface .