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Mast cells play an important role in initiating and modulating allergic and inflammatory reactions. Their responsiveness is determined by three important factors: the expression of IgE receptors on the cell surface, the IgE occupancy of these receptors, and the intrinsic secretory capacity of the cells. In this review, we will summarise some findings relevant to these three aspects of mast cell function, and discuss possible regulatory mechanisms. It appears that the genetic background as well as environmental factors influence all three of these components of the response. T cells appear to play an important role in regulating the IgE-receptor expression and also, independently, the intrinsic secretory capacity of mast cells via an unidentified route, possibly involving the secretory signal transduction chain directly. IgE itself appears to have an important role in the regulation of IgE-receptor expression, as indicated by the upregulation of receptors in vitro in the presence of IgE, and the absence of IgE-binding capacity of mast cells in IL-4 gene knockout mice, lacking IgE production. The IgE-receptors of mast cells are saturated to a high degree under different normal conditions, without an obvious relation to antigenic stimulation, also in athymic animals. We have suggested that this basal IgE content on mast cells may be the result of an antigen-independent production of IgE directed by the mast cells themselves and serving regulatory purposes, modifying the secretory response and preventing a massive possibly harmful degranulation.