Mast cells (MC) release potent mediators which alter enteric nerve and smooth muscle function and may play a role in the pathogenesis of the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The aim of this study was to determine if MC were increased in the colon of IBS patients compared to controls. Biopsy specimens were obtained from the caecum, ascending colon, descending colon and rectum of 28 patients: 14 IBS (Rome criteria); seven normal; and seven inflammatory controls. Tissue was stained immunohistochemically using a monoclonal mouse antibody for human mast cell tryptase (AA1). Tissue area occupied by tryptase-positive MC (volume density of mast cells) was quantified by image analysis. The number of plasma cells, lymphocytes, eosinophils, neutrophils and macrophages were each graded semiquantitatively (0-4) in haematoxylin and eosin stained sections. Mast cell volume density was significantly (P < 0.05) higher in IBS (0.91 +/- 0.18; CI 0.79; 1.0) than normal controls (0.55 +/- 0.14; CI 0.40; 0.69) in the caecum but not at other sites. Apart from MC, there was no evidence of increased cellular infiltrate in the IBS group. MC were significantly increased in the caecum of IBS patients compared to controls. The multiple effects of the intestinal mast cell alone, or as a participant of a persistent inflammatory response, may be fundamental to the pathogenesis of IBS.