RNA degradation is a key process in the regulation of gene expression. In all organisms, RNA degradation participates in controlling coding and non-coding RNA levels in response to developmental and environmental cues. RNA degradation is also crucial for the elimination of defective RNAs. Those defective RNAs are mostly produced by ‘mistakes’ made by the RNA processing machinery during the maturation of functional transcripts from their precursors. The constant control of RNA quality prevents potential deleterious effects caused by the accumulation of aberrant non-coding transcripts or by the translation of defective messenger RNAs (mRNAs). Prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms are also under the constant threat of attacks from pathogens, mostly viruses, and one common line of defence involves the ribonucleolytic digestion of the invader’s RNA. Finally, mutations in components involved in RNA degradation are associated with numerous diseases in humans, and this together with the multiplicity of its roles illustrates the biological importance of RNA degradation. RNA degradation is mostly viewed as a default pathway: any functional RNA (including a successful pathogenic RNA) must be protected from the scavenging RNA degradation machinery. Yet, this protection must be temporary, and it will be overcome at one point because the ultimate fate of any cellular RNA is to be eliminated. This special issue focuses on modifications deposited at the 5′ or the 3′ extremities of RNA, and how these modifications control RNA stability or degradation.This article is part of the theme issue ‘5’ and 3′ modifications controlling RNA degradation’.