Heterochronic genes control the timing of vulval development in the C. elegans hermaphrodite. lin-14 or lin-28 loss-of-function mutations cause the vulval precursor cells (VPCs) to enter S phase and to divide one larval stage earlier than in the wild type. A precocious vulva is formed by essentially normal cell lineage patterns, governed by the same intercellular signals as in the wild type. Mutations that prevent the normal developmental down-regulation of lin-14, activity delay or block VPC division and prevent vulval differentiation. A genetic pathway that includes lin-4, lin-14, and lin-28 controls when VPCs complete G1 and also controls when VPCs acquire the competence to respond to the intercellular patterning signals and express vulval fates.