The polycistronic lac mRNA of Escherichia coli contains three messages. The rate of degradation of the second (lacY) message was observed to be equal to that of the third (lacA), and each decayed twice as fast as did the first (lacZ). Specific 5'- and 3'-ended lacY mRNA molecules could be recovered from cells; most likely, they are generated from endonucleolytic cleavages that are a part of the degradative process. They were observed by S1 nuclease mapping, and the exact 5'- and 3'-end oligonucleotides of many of them were identified by direct sequencing. Almost all of the molecules started with a 5' adenosine that would be preceded by a pyrimidine. The specificity was further restricted by neighboring nucleotides, and analysis of the data suggested that 5'-U-U decreases-A-U- is especially vulnerable. Also, computer analyses predicted the most stable secondary structures of selected segments of the mRNA and suggested that cleavages may only occur in regions of single strandedness. A model of mRNA degradation is proposed based on these observations and earlier ones. There is no unique target on a message for the initial inactivating attack: any region free of ribosomes is vulnerable, but for statistical reasons the initial attack of most molecules is near the ribosome-loading site. With no further ribosome loading, the newly unprotected 5' ends are "chopped off" at one of the next preferred target sites almost as fast as the last ribosomes moves down the mRNA.