The Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, is introduced into human hosts via tick bites. Among the cell types present in the skin which may initially contact spirochetes are mast cells. Since spirochetes are known to activate a variety of cell types in vitro, we tested whether B. burgdorferi spirochetes could activate mast cells. We report here that freshly isolated rat peritoneal mast cells or mouse MC/9 mast cells cultured in vitro with live or freeze-thawed B. burgdorferi spirochetes undergo low but detectable degranulation, as measured by [5-3H] hydroxytryptamine release, and they synthesize and secrete the proinflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). In contrast to findings in previous studies, where B. burgdorferi-associated activity was shown to be dependent upon protein lipidation, mast cell TNF-alpha release was not induced by either lipidated or unlipidated recombinant OspA. This activity was additionally shown to be protease sensitive and surface expressed. Finally, comparisons of TNF-alpha-inducing activity in known low-, intermediate-, and high-passage B. burgdorferi B31 isolates demonstrated passage-dependent loss of activity, indicating that the activity is probably plasmid encoded. These findings document the presence in low-passage B. burgdorferi spirochetes of a novel lipidation-independent activity capable of inducing cytokine release from host cells.