Microorganisms are the most abundant and widely spread organisms on earth. They colonize a huge variety of natural and anthropogenic environments, including very specialized ecological niches and even extreme habitats, which are made possible by the immense metabolic diversity and genetic adaptability of microbes. As most of the organisms from environmental samples defy cultivation, cultivation-independent metagenomics approaches have been applied since more than one decade to access and characterize the phylogenetic diversity in microbial communities as well as their metabolic potential and ecological functions. Thereby, metagenomics has fully emerged as an own scientific field for mining new biocatalysts for many industrially relevant processes in biotechnology and pharmaceutics. This review summarizes common metagenomic approaches ranging from sampling, isolation of nucleic acids, construction of metagenomic libraries and their evaluation. Sequence-based screenings implement next-generation sequencing platforms, microarrays or PCR-based methods, while function-based analysis covers heterologous expression of metagenomic libraries in diverse screening setups. Major constraints and advantages of each strategy are described. The importance of alternative host-vector systems is discussed, and in order to underline the role of phylogenetic and physiological distance from the gene donor and the expression host employed, a case study is presented that describes the screening of a genomic library from an extreme thermophilic bacterium in both Escherichia coli and Thermus thermophilus. Metatranscriptomics, metaproteomics and single-cell-based methods are expected to complement metagenomic screening efforts to identify novel biocatalysts from environmental samples.