The gut microbiota provides essential signals for the development and appropriate function of the immune system. Through this critical contribution to immune fitness, the gut microbiota has a key role in health and disease. Recent advances in the technological applications to study microbial communities and their functions have contributed to a rapid increase in host–microbiota research. Although it still remains difficult to define a so-called ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ microbial composition, alterations in the gut microbiota have been shown to influence the susceptibility of the host to different diseases. Current translational research combined with recent technological and computational advances have enabled in-depth study of the link between microbial composition and immune function, addressing the interplay between the gut microbiota and immune responses. As such, beneficial modulation of the gut microbiota is a promising clinical target for many prevalent diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic abnormalities such as obesity, reduced insulin sensitivity and low-grade inflammation, allergy and protective immunity against infections.