Brown Norway (BN) rats given mercuric chloride (HgCl2), gold (Au) salts or D-penicillamine develop a T helper 2 (Th2) cell-mediated autoimmune syndrome. The recent observation of tissue injury within 24 h of HgCl2 treatment suggested the involvement of a non-T cell. We therefore examined the effect of these compounds on rat mast cells in vitro. Incubation of BN rat peritoneal mast cells with HgCl2 enhanced the release of serotonin in response to IgE cross-linking agents. Mast cells from Lewis rats, a strain not susceptible to the autoimmune syndrome in vivo, were affected to a lesser extent. The effect was observed with purified BN mast cells, suggesting a direct action. Similar effects were seen with D-penicillamine in the presence of copper ions, a combination that produces hydrogen peroxide, and Au. HgCl2 caused significant induction of interleukin (IL)-4 mRNA in mast cells from BN, but not Lewis rats. The data demonstrate a novel enhancing effect of a number of compounds on mast cell mediator release, and an inducing effect of HgCl2 on mast cell IL-4, expression. These findings are consistent with our hypotheses that mast cells may contribute to early tissue injury, and also, via production of IL-4, may initiate and/or augment, the Th2 response in the BN rat model of chemical-induced autoimmunity.