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Mast cells: Development, identification, and physiologic roles

Michael Gurish, PhD
Mariana C Castells, MD, PhD
Section Editor
Sarbjit Saini, MD
Deputy Editor
Anna M Feldweg, MD


Mast cells are found in varying numbers in practically all tissues. They are positioned as sentinels at the body's portals of entry within mucosal membranes lining the respiratory, digestive, and urogenital systems, throughout the dermis, and surrounding blood vessels [1-3]. They are found in lower invertebrates as well as vertebrates, suggesting that they serve a fundamental role within the immune system [4].

Mast cells have long been recognized for their participation in allergic disease, including asthma, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis, urticaria, and anaphylaxis. However, they also have a variety of protective and regenerative roles throughout the body.

The anatomic location, development, cellular identification, and physiologic roles of mast cells are discussed in this topic review. Their activating and inhibitory surface receptors, signal transduction, and mediators are reviewed separately. (See "Mast cells: Surface receptors and signal transduction" and "Mast cell-derived mediators".)

The contributions of mast cells to specific atopic diseases and mastocytosis are discussed elsewhere. (See "Pathogenesis of asthma" and "Mastocytosis (cutaneous and systemic): Epidemiology, pathogenesis, and clinical manifestations".)


Mast cells reside within the connective tissue of a variety of tissues and all vascularized organs. Their numbers and densities are highest at interfaces between the internal and external environments where they can respond to foreign organisms and antigens, providing a sentinel function [5]. Sites include the dermis, gut mucosa and submucosa, conjunctiva, pulmonary alveoli and airways, and the atrial appendage of the heart [5-11]. Dermal mast cells are often located in close proximity to blood vessels, nerves, and lymphatics, with an estimated density of 7000 to 20,000 mast cells per cubic millimeter of skin [6,12]. From this strategic location, they can influence the function of vascular structures, monitor the blood for inflammatory and infectious changes, capture circulating immunoglobulin E (IgE) molecules onto their surface, and distribute their mediators throughout the body [13,14]. Mast cells are found in the choroid plexus of the brain and in the vascular bed of the meninges. Low numbers of mast cells are found in the kidneys and bone marrow.

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 14, 2017.
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