Nasal polyposis is a chronic inflammatory condition of the upper airways characterized by infiltration of activated inflammatory cells, including mast cells, both in the epithelium and in the stroma. The aim of this work was to study human mast cells derived from two different anatomical sites within the same nasal polyp tissue. To this end, we isolated two distinct mast cell populations, one from the epithelial and the other from the stromal layers of individual human nasal polyp tissues. We examined the mediator content of the two mast cell populations and found that stromal mast cells had a significantly higher content of tryptase compared with the epithelial mast cells from the same tissue. In addition, mast cells from the stromal compartment, but not those from the epithelium, released a significant amount of histamine after anti-IgE stimulation. By contrast, both populations released over 50% of the total histamine after non-specific stimuli (A23187 10(-6) M). The content of mediators and the response to immunological activation were not significantly altered in patients receiving topical steroid therapy. It remains to be determined if the observed differences are the result of an intrinsic characteristic of the mast cell populations localized to separate tissue compartments, or reflect a different in vivo exposure to stimuli such as antigens, or different surrounding structural or infiltrating cells. In conclusion, these data provide evidence of functional heterogeneity and differences in mediator content between mast cell subpopulations from a single human tissue. The failure of release of epithelial mast cell mediators from an immunologic stimulus may have implications concerning acute effects of antigen exposure in nasal polyposis.