Rat peritoneal mast cells were examined to determine whether mast cells can stimulate T cell proliferation through antigen presentation. Mast cells were obtained by peritoneal lavage and purified to 98% using density gradient centrifugation. Purified peritoneal mast cells expressed MHC class II molecules as determined by flow cytometry using monoclonal antibody OX6 specific for common determinants of rat class II. The intensity of class II expression by mast cells was not significantly increased upon incubation with recombinant rat IFN-gamma. Peritoneal mast cells also were found to express the accessory molecules ICAM-1 (CD54) and LFA-1 beta (CD18) but not LFA-1 alpha (CD11a). In the presence of antigen, purified mast cells stimulated proliferation of an autologous CD4+, PPD-specific T cell line. This stimulation was blocked by OX6 antibody, confirming that the proliferation was class II dependent. T cell proliferation was similarly induced by purified mast cell populations that were completely monocyte and macrophages depleted. These results demonstrate that mast cells, through their expression of MHC class II and accessory molecules, are capable of antigen presentation.