Mast cells are found resident in tissues throughout the body, particularly in association with structures such as blood vessels and nerves, and in proximity to surfaces that interface the external environment. Mast cells are bone marrow-derived and particularly depend upon stem cell factor for their survival. Mast cells express a variety of phenotypic features within tissues as determined by the local environment. Withdrawal of required growth factors results in mast cell apoptosis. Mast cells appear to be highly engineered cells with multiple critical biological functions. They may be activated by a number of stimuli that are both Fc epsilon RI dependent and Fc epsilon RI independent. Activation through various receptors leads to distinct signaling pathways. After activation, mast cells may immediately extrude granule-associated mediators and generate lipid-derived substances that induce immediate allergic inflammation. Mast cell activation may also be followed by the synthesis of chemokines and cytokines. Cytokine and chemokine secretion, which occurs hours later, may contribute to chronic inflammation. Biological functions of mast cells appear to include a role in innate immunity, involvement in host defense mechanisms against parasitic infestations, immunomodulation of the immune system, and tissue repair and angiogenesis.