Multiple organ failure remains the leading cause of death in the intensive care unit. Increasing numbers of investigators have focused their attention on the role of gastrointestinal tract in the pathogenesis of this syndrome. Their data indicate that inadequate gut perfusion leads to a measurable imbalance between oxygen delivery and the needs of the tissues, i.e., ischaemia. Gut ischaemia of sufficient duration impairs gastrointestinal tract barrier function, facilitating the passage of enteric bacterial endotoxin into the circulation. It has been hypothesized that production of tumor necrosis factor alpha, and other biologic mediators by endotoxin-stimulated macrophages, triggers a generalized and uncontrolled inflammatory response that ultimately leads to multiple organ failure. Preliminary evidence suggests that survival can be improved significantly if gut ischaemia is promptly identified and aggressively treated by administration of fluids and inotropic drugs, using gastric intramucosal pH as the therapeutic endpoint. Future studies are needed to determine whether additional treatment modalities can improve outcome once the inflammatory response has fully developed.