Crohn's disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) have features that suggest bacterial involvement, and all genetic models of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) require the presence of commensal bacteria. CD is associated with innate immune response genes such as NOD2/CARD15 and the autophagy genes ATG16L1 and IRGM. However, IBD responds to immunosuppression, suggesting that any bacteria involved are not acting as conventional pathogens. Molecular techniques are rapidly advancing our knowledge of the gut microbiota. In CD there is reduced diversity, and notably a reduction in the probiotic Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, the presence of which in the terminal ileum is associated with a reduced risk of recurrence following surgery. There is also a consistent increase in mucosa-associated Escherichia coli with an "adherent and invasive" phenotype, which allows them to replicate inside macrophages and induce granulomas. Speculation that CD could be caused by the Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) continues. The response to antitumor necrosis factor treatments suggests that, if relevant at all, MAP is not acting as a conventional pathogen. However, there is increased colonization by MAP in CD, and there is evidence that it could have an indirect effect mediated by the suppression of macrophage function. UC relapse is frequently associated with infection by pathogens, but there is less evidence for involvement of a specific bacterial species. Poor barrier integrity followed by an inflammatory reaction to bacterial components, with chronicity maintained by an autoimmune process, seems a plausible pathogenic model. Bacterial theories of pathogenesis are now becoming testable by targeted therapeutic interventions.
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