Ca(2+) oscillations and signaling represent a basic mechanism for controlling many cellular events. Activation of mouse eggs entrains a temporal series of Ca(2+)-dependent events that include cortical granule exocytosis, cell cycle resumption with concomitant decreases in MPF and MAP kinase activities, and recruitment of maternal mRNAs. The outcome is a switch in cellular differentiation, i.e., the conversion of the egg into the zygote. By activating mouse eggs with experimentally controlled and precisely defined Ca(2+) transients, we demonstrate that each of these events is initiated by a different number of Ca(2+) transients, while their completion requires a greater number of Ca(2+) transients than for their initiation. This combination of differential responses to the number of Ca(2+) transients provides strong evidence that a single Ca(2+) transient-driven signaling system can initiate and drive a cell into a new developmental pathway, as well as can account for the temporal sequence of cellular changes associated with early development.