RNAs are important effectors in the process of gene expression. In bacteria, constant adaptation to environmental demands is accompanied by a continual adjustment of transcripts' levels. The cellular concentration of a given RNA is the result of the balance between its synthesis and degradation. RNA degradation is a complex process encompassing multiple pathways. Ribonucleases (RNases) are the enzymes that directly process and degrade the transcripts, regulating their amounts. They are also important in quality control of RNAs by detecting and destroying defective molecules. The rate at which RNA decay occurs depends on the availability of ribonucleases and their specificities according to the sequence and/or the structural elements of the RNA molecule. Ribosome loading and the 5′-phosphorylation status can also modulate the stability of transcripts. The wide diversity of RNases present in different microorganisms is another factor that conditions the pathways and mechanisms of RNA degradation. RNases are themselves carefully regulated by distinct mechanisms. Several other factors modulate RNA degradation, namely polyadenylation, which plays a multifunctional role in RNA metabolism. Additionally, small non-coding RNAs are crucial regulators of gene expression, and can directly modulate the stability of their mRNA targets. In many cases this regulation is dependent on Hfq, an RNA binding protein which can act in concert with polyadenylation enzymes and is often necessary for the activity of sRNAs. All of the above-mentioned aspects are discussed in the present review, which also highlights the principal differences between the RNA degradation pathways for the two main Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacterial models. WIREs RNA 2011 2 818-836 DOI: 10.1002/wrna.94 For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.