The composition and spatial organization of the mucosal flora in biopsy specimens from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD; either Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis), self-limiting colitis, irritable-bowel syndrome (IBS), and healthy controls were investigated by using a broad range of fluorescent bacterial group-specific rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide probes. Each group included 20 subjects. Ten patients who had IBD and who were being treated with antibiotics were also studied. Use of nonaqueous Carnoy fixative to preserve the mucus layer was crucial for detection of bacteria adherent to the mucosal surface (mucosal bacteria). No biofilm was detectable in formalin-fixed biopsy specimens. Mucosal bacteria were found at concentrations greater than 10(9)/ml in 90 to 95% of IBD patients, 95% of patients with self-limiting colitis, 65% of IBS patients, and 35% of healthy controls. The mean density of the mucosal biofilm was 2 powers higher in IBD patients than in patients with IBS or controls, and bacteria were mostly adherent. Bacteroides fragilis was responsible for >60% of the biofilm mass in patients with IBD but for only 30% of the biofilm mass in patients with self-limiting colitis and <15% of the biofilm mass in patients with IBS. In contrast, bacteria which positively hybridized with the probe specific for Eubacterium rectale-Clostridium coccoides accounted for >40% of the biofilm in IBS patients but for <15% of the biofilm in IBD patients. In patients treated with (5-ASA) or antibiotics, the biofilm could be detected with 4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole but did not hybridize with fluorescence in situ hybridization probes. A Bacteroides fragilis biofilm is the main feature of IBD. This was not previously recognized due to a lack of appropriate tissue fixation. Both 5-ASA and antibiotics suppress but do not eliminate the adherent biofilm.