We have carried out studies to ascertain whether the histamine-containing, IgE-bearing cells found in the bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid obtained during the late-phase response following subsegmental antigen challenge of human airways are predominantly basophils or mast cells. Four lines of evidence suggest that most are basophils: (1) The cells fulfill morphologic criteria for light microscopy. (2) Cell surface markers determined by immunofluorescence and flow cytometry revealed that the IgE-bearing cells express the leukocyte antigens Fc gamma RII and the beta 2 integrins, LFA-1 and Mac-1, but do not express the mast cell-associated c-kit receptor for stem cell factor. (3) The late-phase histamine-containing cells in late-phase BAL fluids have the functional characteristics of basophils in their secretory responses to anti-IgE, the f-met peptide, and phorbol ester TPA. (4) The cells have a functional histamine type 2 receptor, a characteristic of basophils, not mast cells. We conclude that basophils infiltrate the lower airways hours after antigen exposure. These cells may be responsible for the mediator release observed at that time.