While it is known that mast cells arise from pluripotential hematopoietic cells and express their mature phenotypes in tissues, the sequence of events in maturation is incompletely understood. To study early mast cells, we sorted cells from interleukin-3 (IL-3)-dependent mouse bone marrow cultures on the basis of Fc epsilon RI and examined their morphology, histamine content, and growth characteristics. Flow cytometric analysis and sort showed that the Fc epsilon RI-bearing (Fc epsilon RI+) cells increased from 0% on day 0 to 90% by day 21 and that the total number of Fc epsilon RI+ cells increased from 0 at the start of culture to 3.75 x 10(5) cells by day 21 from an initial population of 1 x 10(5) cells. The dissociation rate of 125I-labeled IgE from early cultured cells resembled the dissociation rate of mouse IgE from mature murine mast cells. Mean fluorescence intensity increased over time, reflecting an increase in IgE receptor density. Fc epsilon RI+ cells were also positive for Fc gamma RII/III. Morphologic studies showed gradual acquisition of metachromatic granules in the Fc epsilon RI+ cells, which was paralleled by an increase in histamine content. Sorted Fc epsilon RI+ cells, when placed in liquid suspension culture, gave rise to pure mast cell populations. Fc epsilon RI+ cells sorted at day 3 and cultured in agarose with IL-3 gave rise to 4,800 small and 150 medium-size mast cell colony-forming units per 10(6) cells, while Fc epsilon RI- cells gave rise to 23 medium-size and 49 large mast cell colony-forming units per 10(6) cells. Fc epsilon RI+ cells grown in granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (CSF) or macrophage- CSF did not give rise to colony-forming units. These results show that Fc epsilon RI+ cells have proliferative potential, but that there also is a population of mast cell progenitor cells that have not yet expressed Fc epsilon RI, and such individual progenitor cells have greater potential for proliferation than cells that express Fc epsilon RI.