Microorganisms are ubiquitous on earth, often forming complex microbial communities in numerous different habitats. Most of these organisms cannot be readily cultivated in the laboratory using standard media and growth conditions. However, it is possible to gain access to the vast genetic, enzymatic, and metabolic diversity present in these microbial communities using cultivation-independent approaches such as sequence- or function-based metagenomics. Function-based analysis is dependent on heterologous expression of metagenomic libraries in a genetically amenable cloning and expression host. To date, Escherichia coli is used in most cases; however, this has the drawback that many genes from heterologous genomes and complex metagenomes are expressed in E. coli either at very low levels or not at all. This review emphasizes the importance of establishing alternative microbial expression systems consisting of different genera and species as well as customized strains and vectors optimized for heterologous expression of membrane proteins, multigene clusters encoding protein complexes or entire metabolic pathways. The use of alternative host-vector systems will complement current metagenomic screening efforts and expand the yield of novel biocatalysts, metabolic pathways, and useful metabolites to be identified from environmental samples.