The transition from mitosis to meiosis is a defining juncture in the life cycle of sexually reproducing organisms. In yeast, the decision to enter meiosis is made before the single round of DNA replication that precedes the two meiotic divisions. We present genetic evidence of an analogous decision point in the germ line of a multicellular organism. The mouse Stra8 gene is expressed in germ cells of embryonic ovaries, where meiosis is initiated, but not in those of embryonic testes, where meiosis does not begin until after birth. Here we report that in female embryos lacking Stra8 gene function, the early, mitotic development of germ cells is normal, but these cells then fail to undergo premeiotic DNA replication, meiotic chromosome condensation, cohesion, synapsis and recombination. Combined with previous findings, these genetic data suggest that active differentiation of ovarian germ cells commences at a regulatory point upstream of premeiotic DNA replication.