How does a fertilized egg decode its own genome to eventually develop into a mature animal? Each developing cell must activate a battery of genes in a timely manner and according to the function it will ultimately perform, but how? During development of the notochord--a structure akin to the vertebrate spine--in a simple marine invertebrate, an essential protein called Brachyury binds to specific sites in its target genes. A study just published in PLOS Biology reports that if the target gene contains multiple Brachyury-binding sites it will be activated early in development but if it contains only one site it will be activated later. Genes that contain no binding site can still be activated by Brachyury, but only indirectly by an earlier Brachyury-dependent gene product, so later than the directly activated genes. Thus, this study shows how several genes can interpret the presence of a single factor differently to become active at distinct times in development.