Mast cells are of hematopoietic origin but typically complete their maturation in peripheral connective tissues, especially those near epithelial surfaces. Mast cells express receptors that bind IgE antibodies with high affinity (FcepsilonRI), and aggregation of these FcepsilonRI by the reaction of cell-bound IgE with specific antigens induces mast cells to secrete a broad spectrum of biologically active preformed or lipid mediators, as well as many cytokines. Mast cells are widely thought to be essential for the expression of acute allergic reactions, but the importance of mast cells in late-phase reactions and chronic allergic inflammation has remained controversial. Although it is clear that many cell types may be involved in the expression of late-phase reactions and chronic allergic inflammation, studies in genetically mast cell-deficient and congenic normal mice indicate that mast cells may be critical for the full expression of certain features of late-phase reactions and may also contribute importantly to clinically relevant aspects of chronic allergic inflammation. Moreover, the pattern of cytokines that can be produced by mast cell populations, and the enhancement of such cytokine production in mast cells that have undergone IgE-dependent up-regulation of their surface expression of FcepsilonRI, suggests that mast cells may contribute to allergic diseases (and host defense) by acting as immunoregulatory cells, as well as by providing effector cell function.