Dynamic RNA acetylation as a mechanism for RNA thermostabilization N4-acetylcytidine (ac4C) is an ancient and highly conserved RNA modification that is present on tRNA and rRNA and has recently been investigated in eukaryotic mRNA. However, the distribution, dynamics and functions of cytidine acetylation have yet to be fully elucidated. We recently developed ac4C-seq, a chemical genomic method for the transcriptome-wide quantitative mapping of ac4C at single-nucleotide resolution. Our results indicate that in human and yeast mRNAs, ac4C sites are not detected but can be induced—at a conserved sequence motif—via the ectopic overexpression of eukaryotic acetyltransferase complexes. By contrast, cross-evolutionary profiling revealed unprecedented levels of ac4C across hundreds of residues in rRNA, tRNA, non-coding RNA and mRNA from hyperthermophilic archaea. Ac4C is markedly induced in response to increases in temperature, and acetyltransferase-deficient archaeal strains exhibit temperature-dependent growth defects. Visualization of wild-type and acetyltransferase-deficient archaeal ribosomes by cryo-electron microscopy provided structural insights into the temperature-dependent distribution of ac4C and its potential thermoadaptive role. Our studies quantitatively define the ac4C landscape, providing a technical and conceptual foundation for elucidating the role of this modification in biology and disease.