Microorganisms are efficient degraders of starch, chitin, and the polysaccharides in plant cell walls. Attempts to purify hydrolases led to the realization that a microorganism may produce a multiplicity of enzymes, referred to as a system, for the efficient utilization of a polysaccharide. In order to fully characterize a particular enzyme, it must be obtained free of the other components of a system. Quite often, this proves to be very difficult because of the complexity of a system. This realization led to the cloning of the genes encoding them as an approach to eliminating other components. More than 400 such genes have been cloned and sequenced, and the enzymes they encode have been grouped into more than 50 families of related amino acid sequences. The enzyme systems revealed in this manner are complex on two quite different levels. First, many of the individual enzymes are complex, as they are modular proteins comprising one or more catalytic domains linked to ancillary domains that often include one or more substrate-binding domains. Second, the systems are complex, comprising from a few to 20 or more enzymes, all of which hydrolyze a particular substrate. Systems for the hydrolysis of plant cell walls usually contain more components than systems for the hydrolysis of starch and chitin because the cell walls contain several polysaccharides. In general, the systems produced by different microorganisms for the hydrolysis of a particular polysaccharide comprise similar enzymes from the same families.