The microbiota of the mammalian intestine depend largely on dietary polysaccharides as energy sources. Most of these polymers are not degradable by the host, but herbivores can derive 70% of their energy intake from microbial breakdown - a classic example of mutualism. Moreover, dietary polysaccharides that reach the human large intestine have a major impact on gut microbial ecology and health. Insight into the molecular mechanisms by which different gut bacteria use polysaccharides is, therefore, of fundamental importance. Genomic analyses of the gut microbiota could revolutionize our understanding of these mechanisms and provide new biotechnological tools for the conversion of polysaccharides, including lignocellulosic biomass, into monosaccharides.