The common belief that endonucleolytic cleavage is the initial, rate-determining step of mRNA decay in Escherichia coli fails to explain the influence of 5' termini on the half-lives of primary transcripts. We have re-examined the initial events of RNA degradation in that organism by devising an assay to probe the 5' phosphorylation state of RNA and by employing a self-cleaving hammerhead ribozyme to investigate the degradative consequences of an unphosphorylated 5' end. These studies have identified a previously unrecognized prior step in decay that triggers subsequent internal cleavage by the endonuclease RNase E and thereby governs RNA longevity: the rate-determining conversion of a triphosphorylated to a monophosphorylated 5' terminus. Our findings redefine the role of RNase E in RNA degradation and explain how unpaired 5'-terminal nucleotides can facilitate access to internal cleavage sites within primary transcripts. Moreover, these results reveal a striking parallel between the mechanisms of mRNA decay in prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms.