How can probiotic bacteria transduce their health benefits to the host? Bacterial cell surface macromolecules are key factors in this beneficial microorganism-host crosstalk, as they can interact with host pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) of the gastrointestinal mucosa. In this Review, we highlight the documented signalling interactions of the surface molecules of probiotic bacteria (such as long surface appendages, polysaccharides and lipoteichoic acids) with PRRs. Research on host-probiotic interactions can benefit from well-documented host-microorganism studies that span the spectrum from pathogenicity to mutualism. Distinctions and parallels are therefore drawn with the interactions of similar molecules that are presented by gastrointestinal commensals and pathogens.