Human lung mast cells were examined by digital video microscopy for changes in cytosolic free ionized calcium [( Ca++]i) after stimulation with anti-IgE antibody or specific antigens. These studies sought to determine whether the mast cell response resembled a graded or an all-or-nothing process. Preliminary experiments indicated that labeling mast cells with fura-2 did not alter their response to IgE-mediated stimulation. Subsequent experiments established that an IgE-mediated stimulus evoked an elevation of [Ca++]i from a baseline value of 85 nM to an average of 190 nM (range 60-450 nM, n = 23), with an average histamine release of 26%. There was a good correlation (Rs = 0.67) between the average net [Ca++]i change and the subsequent histamine release (regression equation: %HR = 0.189[net(Ca)-52]). [Ca++]i elevations were found to precede histamine release (t1/2 for [Ca++]i of 35 s vs. t1/2 for histamine release of 110 s). Single-cell analysis found that even for very low values of histamine release, nearly all cells demonstrated a [Ca++]i response. However, this response was markedly heterogeneous, ranging from no response to responses two to three times the mean. Comparative studies of mast cells stimulated under optimal and suboptimal conditions established that there was a graded [Ca++]i response dependent on the strength of the stimulus. An all-or-nothing reaction for the [Ca++]i response was ruled out.

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