Bacteria use complex strategies to coordinate temperature-dependent gene expression. Many genes encoding heat shock proteins and virulence factors are regulated by temperature-sensing RNA sequences, known as RNA thermometers (RNATs), in their mRNAs. For these genes, the 5' untranslated region of the mRNA folds into a structure that blocks ribosome access at low temperatures. Increasing the temperature gradually shifts the equilibrium between the closed and open conformations towards the open structure in a zipper-like manner, thereby increasing the efficiency of translation initiation. Here, we review the known molecular principles of RNAT action and the hierarchical RNAT cascade in Escherichia coli. We also discuss RNA-based thermosensors located upstream of cold shock and other genes, translation of which preferentially occurs at low temperatures and which thus operate through a different, more switch-like mechanism. Finally, we consider the potential biotechnological applications of natural and synthetic RNATs.