Childhood undernutrition is a major global health challenge. Although current therapeutic approaches have reduced mortality in individuals with severe disease, they have had limited efficacy in ameliorating long-term sequelae, notably stunting, immune dysfunction, and neurocognitive deficits. Recent work is providing insights about the role of impaired development of the human gut microbiota in disease pathogenesis, leading to new concepts for treatment and prevention. These findings raise intriguing basic questions about the mechanisms that direct normal gut microbial community assembly and functional maturation. Designing and implementing new microbiota-directed therapeutics for undernutrition highlights the need to simultaneously consider a variety of features of human biology as well as broader societal issues.