Recent reports indicate that mutations in viral genomes tend to preserve RNA secondary structure, and those mutations that disrupt secondary structural elements may reduce gene expression levels, thereby serving as a functional knockout. In this article, we explore the conservation of secondary structures of mRNA coding regions, a previously unknown factor in bacterial evolution, by comparing the structural consequences of mutations in essential and nonessential Escherichia coli genes accumulated over 40 000 generations in the course of the 'long-term evolution experiment'. We monitored the extent to which mutations influence minimum free energy (MFE) values, assuming that a substantial change in MFE is indicative of structural perturbation. Our principal finding is that purifying selection tends to eliminate those mutations in essential genes that lead to greater changes of MFE values and, therefore, may be more disruptive for the corresponding mRNA secondary structures. This effect implies that synonymous mutations disrupting mRNA secondary structures may directly affect the fitness of the organism. These results demonstrate that the need to maintain intact mRNA structures imposes additional evolutionary constraints on bacterial genomes, which go beyond preservation of structure and function of the encoded proteins.