Summary Cellulose is the most abundant carbon source in nature but it is very difficult to degrade because of its insolubility, quasi-crystalline structure and its presence in plant cell walls in a matrix with other polymers that limit access to the cellulose surface. Most cellulose in soils is degraded by cellulolytic microorganisms that use a number of different approaches to overcome the recalcitrance of cellulose in plant cell walls. All of these approaches involve multiple cellulases and, since cellulose is insoluble and microorganisms cannot ingest particles, the cellulases are present outside of the cell although they can be attached to its outer surface. An impressive article by Tolonen et al. in this issue of Molecular Microbiology shows that deletion of the single family 9 cellulase gene in Clostridium phytofermentans prevents growth on cellulose although the mutant strain grows perfectly well on glucose and its other cellulase genes are transcribed normally. These results show for the first time that a single cellulase can be essential for cellulose degradation by an organism despite the presence of several other cellulases. It will be interesting to learn the detailed mechanism that C. phytofermentans uses to degrade cellulose.