Mast cell progenitors arise in bone marrow and then migrate to peripheral tissues where they mature. It is presumed that integrin receptors are involved in their migration and homing. In the present study, the expression of various integrin subunits was investigated in three systems of adherent and nonadherent mast cells. Mesentery mast cells, freshly isolated bone marrow-derived mast cells (BMMC) and RBL-2H3 cells grown attached to tissue culture flasks are all adherent mast cells and peritoneal mast cells, and cultured BMMC and RBL-2H3 cells grown in suspension represent nonadherent mast cell populations. Pure populations of mast cells were immunomagnetically isolated from bone marrow, mesentery and peritoneal lavage using the mast cell-specific monoclonal antibody AA4. By immunomicroscopy, we could demonstrate that all of these mast cells expressed alpha 4, alpha 5, alpha 6, beta 1 and beta 7 integrin subunits. The expression of the alpha 4 integrin subunit was 25% higher in freshly isolated mesentery mast cells and BMMC. Consistent with the results obtained by immunomicroscopy, mesentery mast cells expressed 65% more mRNA for the alpha 4 integrin subunit than peritoneal mast cells. In vitro studies were also conducted using the rat mast cell line RBL-2H3. RBL-2H3 cells grown attached to the tissue culture flasks or as suspension cultures expressed the same integrin subunits identified in bone marrow, mesenteric and peritoneal mast cells ex vivo. Similarly, the expression of alpha 4 integrin was higher in adherent cells. Therefore, alpha 4 integrins may play a critical role in the anchorage of mast cells to the extracellular matrix in bone marrow and in peripheral tissues.