BACKGROUND: Butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid, is a main end-product of intestinal microbial fermentation of mainly dietary fibre. Butyrate is an important energy source for intestinal epithelial cells and plays a role in the maintenance of colonic homeostasis. AIM: To provide an overview on the present knowledge of the bioactivity of butyrate, emphasizing effects and possible mechanisms of action in relation to human colonic function. METHODS: A PubMed search was performed to select relevant publications using the search terms: 'butyrate, short-chain fatty acid, fibre, colon, inflammation, carcinogenesis, barrier, oxidative stress, permeability and satiety'. RESULTS: Butyrate exerts potent effects on a variety of colonic mucosal functions such as inhibition of inflammation and carcinogenesis, reinforcing various components of the colonic defence barrier and decreasing oxidative stress. In addition, butyrate may promote satiety. Two important mechanisms include the inhibition of nuclear factor kappa B activation and histone deacetylation. However, the observed effects of butyrate largely depend on concentrations and models used and human data are still limited. CONCLUSION: Although most studies point towards beneficial effects of butyrate, more human in vivo studies are needed to contribute to our current understanding of butyrate-mediated effects on colonic function in health and disease.