Metabolic instability is a hallmark property of mRNAs in most if not all organisms and plays an essential role in facilitating rapid responses to regulatory cues. This article provides a critical examination of recent progress in the enzymology of mRNA decay in Escherichia coli, focusing on six major enzymes: RNase III, RNase E, polynucleotide phosphorylase, RNase II, poly(A) polymerase(s), and RNA helicase(s). The first major advance in our thinking about mechanisms of RNA decay has been catalyzed by the possibility that mRNA decay is orchestrated by a multicomponent mRNA-protein complex (the “degradosome”). The ramifications of this discovery are discussed and developed into mRNA decay models that integrate the properties of the ribonucleases and their associated proteins, the role of RNA structure in determining the susceptibility of an RNA to decay, and some of the known kinetic features of mRNA decay. These models propose that mRNA decay is a vectorial process initiated primarily at or near the 5′ terminus of susceptible mRNAs and propagated by successive endonucleolytic cleavages catalyzed by RNase E in the degradosome. It seems likely that the degradosome can be tethered to its substrate, either physically or kinetically through a preference for monphosphorylated RNAs, accounting for the usual “all or none” nature of mRNA decay. A second recent advance in our thinking about mRNA decay is the rediscovery of polyadenylated mRNA in bacteria. Models are provided to account for the role of polyadenylation in facilitating the 3′ exonucleolytic degradation of structured RNAs. Finally, we have reviewed the documented properties of several well-studied paradigms for mRNA decay in E. coli. We interpret the published data in light of our models and the properties of the degradosome. It seems likely that the study of mRNA decay is about to enter a phase in which research will focus on the structural basis for recognition of cleavage sites, on catalytic mechanisms, and on regulation of mRNA decay.