It is now well known that endogenous bacteria can translocate from the intestinal tract and cause many of the complicating infections seen in severely ill, hospitalized patients. Of the hundreds of bacterial species in the intestinal tract, relatively few aerobic/facultative species appear to translocate with any frequency. Van der Waaij and colleagues (1971, 1972a, 1972b) originally proposed that, by a process termed 'colonization resistance', strictly anaerobic bacteria prevented the intestinal overgrowth and subsequent translocation of these potentially pathogenic aerobic/facultative bacteria. Selective antimicrobial decontamination, designed to maintain colonization resistance, has been effective in reducing the incidence of infectious morbidity in high risk patients. However, the mechanisms controlling bacterial translocation remain unclear, but appear to depend on host factors, as well as on factors inherent in the microbe itself. There is both clinical and experimental evidence supporting the concept that strictly anaerobic bacteria do not readily translocate. Bacteria that are able to survive within macrophages (e.g., Salmonella species and Listeria monocytogenes) translocate easier than others, and there is recent experimental evidence that normal intestinal bacteria may translocate to the draining mesenteric lymph node within host phagocytes. There is also evidence that anaerobic bacteria translocate along with facultative species in situations associated with intestinal epithelial damage, i.e., burn trauma, oral ricinoleic acid, and acute mesenteric ischemia. In contrast, recent experimental evidence demonstrates that facultative bacteria can translocate across a histologically intact intestinal epithelium, and that the ileal absorptive cell may be at least one portal of entry prior to transport into deeper tissues. It is anticipated that further clarification of the routes and mechanisms involved in bacterial translocation will provide new insights into the treatment and prevention of a significant proportion of the infectious morbidity seen in severely ill, hospitalized patients.