The mammalian intestine contains a complex, dynamic, and spatially diversified society of nonpathogenic bacteria. Very little is known about the factors that help establish host-microbial symbiosis in this open ecosystem. By introducing single genetically manipulatable components of the microflora into germfree mice, simplified model systems have been created that will allow conversations between host and microbe to be heard and understood. Other paradigms of host-microbial symbiosis suggest that these interactions will involve an exchange of biochemical signals between host and symbionts as well as among the bacteria themselves. The integration of molecular microbiology, cell biology, and gnotobiology should provide new insights about how we adapt to a microbial world and reveal the roles played by our indigenous, 'nonpathogenic' flora.