Infections have been linked to the development of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis. Findings from the past decade have identified microbial ecosystems residing in different habitats of the human body that contribute to metabolic and cardiovascular-related disorders. In this Review, we describe three pathways by which microbiota might affect atherogenesis. First, local or distant infections might cause a harmful inflammatory response that aggravates plaque development or triggers plaque rupture. Second, metabolism of cholesterol and lipids by gut microbiota can affect the development of atherosclerotic plaques. Third, diet and specific components that are metabolized by gut microbiota can have various effects on atherosclerosis; for example, dietary fibre is beneficial, whereas the bacterial metabolite trimethylamine-N-oxide is considered harmful. Although specific bacterial taxa have been associated with atherosclerosis, which is supported by increasing mechanistic evidence, several questions remain to be answered to understand fully how the microbiota contributes to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Such knowledge might pave the way for novel diagnostics and therapeutics based on microbiota.