The let-60 gene, an essential ras gene of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, acts as a switch in the inductive signalling pathway that initiates vulva formation. Recessive let-60 mutations that cause a vulvaless phenotype prevent let-60 function in response to the inductive signal. These mutations are clustered and define regions necessary either for the activation or for the action of the let-60 ras protein. Dominant let-60 mutations that cause a multivulva phenotype alter codon 13 and activate let-60 in vivo, rendering it independent of the inductive signal. The let-60 gene acts within an extensively defined genetic pathway, and other genes within this pathway seem likely to encode molecules that regulate let-60 function as well as molecules that are targets of let-60 action.