Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes. RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, and, along with lipids, proteins and carbohydrates, constitute the four major macromolecules essential for all known forms of life. Like DNA, RNA is assembled as a chain of nucleotides, but unlike DNA it is more often found in nature as a single-strand folded onto itself, rather than a paired double-strand. Cellular organisms use messenger RNA (mRNA) to convey genetic information (using the nitrogenous bases of guanine, uracil, adenine, and cytosine, denoted by the letters G, U, A, and C) that directs synthesis of specific proteins. Many viruses encode their genetic information using an RNA genome.

The earliest known regulators of gene expression were proteins known as repressors and activators, regulators with specific short binding sites within enhancer regions near the genes to be regulated. More recently, RNAs have been found to regulate genes as well. There are several kinds of RNA-dependent processes in eukaryotes regulating the expression of genes at various points, such as RNAi repressing genes post-transcriptionally, long non-coding RNAs shutting down blocks of chromatin epigenetically, and enhancer RNAs inducing increased gene expression. In addition to these mechanisms in eukaryotes, both bacteria and archaea have been found to use regulatory RNAs extensively. Bacterial small RNA and the CRISPR system are examples of such prokaryotic regulatory RNA systems. Fire and Mello were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering microRNAs (miRNAs), specific short RNA molecules that can base-pair with mRNAs.

Next to be linked to regulation were Xist and other long noncoding RNAs associated with X chromosome inactivation. Their roles, at first mysterious, were shown by Jeannie T. Lee and others to be the silencing of blocks of chromatin via recruitment of Polycomb complex so that messenger RNA could not be transcribed from them. Additional lncRNAs, currently defined as RNAs of more than 200 base pairs that do not appear to have coding potential, have been found associated with regulation of stem cell pluripotency and cell division.

At first, regulatory RNA was thought to be a eukaryotic phenomenon, a part of the explanation for why so much more transcription in higher organisms was seen than had been predicted. But as soon as researchers began to look for possible RNA regulators in bacteria, they turned up there as well, termed as small RNA (sRNA). Currently, the ubiquitous nature of systems of RNA regulation of genes has been discussed as support for the RNA World theory. Bacterial small RNAs generally act via antisense pairing with mRNA to down-regulate its translation, either by affecting stability or affecting cis-binding ability. Riboswitches have also been discovered. They are cis-acting regulatory RNA sequences acting allosterically. They change shape when they bind metabolites so that they gain or lose the ability to bind chromatin to regulate expression of genes.

Like DNA, RNA can carry genetic information. RNA viruses have genomes composed of RNA that encodes a number of proteins. The viral genome is replicated by some of those proteins, while other proteins protect the genome as the virus particle moves to a new host cell. Viroids are another group of pathogens, but they consist only of RNA, do not encode any protein and are replicated by a host plant cell's polymerase.

Research on RNA has led to many important biological discoveries and numerous Nobel Prizes. Nucleic acids were discovered in 1868 by Friedrich Miescher, who called the material 'nuclein' since it was found in the nucleus. It was later discovered that prokaryotic cells, which do not have a nucleus, also contain nucleic acids. The role of RNA in protein synthesis was suspected already in 1939. Severo Ochoa won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Medicine (shared with Arthur Kornberg) after he discovered an enzyme that can synthesize RNA in the laboratory. However, the enzyme discovered by Ochoa (polynucleotide phosphorylase) was later shown to be responsible for RNA degradation, not RNA synthesis. In 1956 Alex Rich and David Davies hybridized two separate strands of RNA to form the first crystal of RNA whose structure could be determined by X-ray crystallography.

In March 2015, complex DNA and RNA nucleotides, including uracil, cytosine and thymine, were reportedly formed in the laboratory under outer space conditions, using starter chemicals, such as pyrimidine, an organic compound commonly found in meteorites. Pyrimidine, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), is one of the most carbon-rich compounds found in the Universe and may have been formed in red giants or in interstellar dust and gas clouds.