The murine W and Steel loci encode the Kit receptor tyrosine kinase and its ligand, Steel factor, respectively. Loss of function mutations at either the W or Sl loci lead to a variety of pleiotropic developmental defects, including mast cell deficiency and severe macrocytic anemia. In addition to these loss-of-function mutations, gain-of-function mutations in c-kit, leading to constitutive activation of the Kit receptor, have also been identified in both rodent and human mastocytomas. In this study, we have examined the transforming potential and biologic effects of a point mutation that results in substitution of the aspartic acid at codon 814 in the cytoplasmic kinase domain to tyrosine (D814Y) by introducing either wild-type (Kit) or mutant KitD814Y (KDY) cDNA into an interleukin-3-dependent mast cell line IC2. Stimulation of cells expressing the wild-type Kit receptor (IC2/Kit) with Steel factor in vitro resulted in a short-term growth response, whereas IC2/KDY cells were capable of sustained proliferation in a ligand-independent manner. In addition, expression of KDY resulted in the oncogenic transformation of IC2 cells, as determined by colony formation in vitro in the absence of exogenous growth factors and the formation of mastocytomas in vivo in syngeneic DBA/2 mice. Surprisingly, KDY expression in IC2 cells triggered dramatic changes in cell size and the extent of granulation. In addition, KDY induced the expression of mouse mast cell protease-4 (MMCP-4) and MMCP-6. In contrast, neither of these molecular or cellular changes was observed in IC2/Kit cells treated with Steel factor. These results show that the D814Y mutation in the cytoplasmic kinase domain of the Kit receptor induces ligand-independent mast cell growth in vitro, tumorigenicity in vivo, and mast cell differentiation.