The Ws mutant allele of rats represents a 12-base deletion at the tyrosine kinase domain of the c-kit gene. Although homozygous Ws/Ws rats were deficient in both connective tissue-type mast cells (CTMC) and mucosal-type mast cells (MMC), mast cells did develop when bone marrow cells of Ws/Ws rats were cultured in the presence of concanavalin A-stimulated spleen cell conditioned medium (ConA-SCM). Although the proliferative response of rat cultured mast cells (RCMC) derived from Ws/Ws rats to ConA-SCM was comparable to that of RCMC derived from control normal (+/+) rats, the proliferative response of Ws/Ws RCMC to rat recombinant stem cell factor (rrSCF; a ligand for the c-kit receptor tyrosine kinase) was much lower than that of +/+ RCMC. However, a slight c-kit kinase activity was detectable in Ws/Ws RCMC, and the proliferation of Ws/Ws RCMC was accelerated when rrSCF was added to ConA-SCM. Because CTMC contain rat mast cell protease-I (RMCP- I) and MMC contain RMCP-II, the phenotype of +/+ and Ws/Ws RCMC in various culture conditions was evaluated by immunohistochemistry of RMCPs. Both +/+ and Ws/Ws RCMC showed the MMC-like phenotype (RMCP-I- /II+) when they were cultured with ConA-SCM alone. Most +/+ RCMC and about half of Ws/Ws RCMC acquired a novel protease (RMCP-I+/II+) phenotype when they were cultured with rrSCF alone. However, because the number of Ws/Ws RCMC dropped to one-tenth in the medium containing rrSCF alone, the absolute number of Ws/Ws RCMC with the RMCP-I+/II+ phenotype did not increase significantly. The effect of rrSCF in inducing the novel phenotype was suppressed when ConA-SCM was added to rrSCF. In contrast, +/+ and Ws/Ws RCMC cocultured with +/+ fibroblasts showed the RMCP-I+/II+ phenotype even in the presence of ConA-SCM. Moreover, a fibroblast cell line derived from SI/SI mouse embryos that did not produce SCF did not support the survival of both +/+ and Ws/Ws RCMC but did induce the RMCP-I+/II+ phenotype in about half of +/+ and Ws/Ws RCMC when their survival was supported by the addition of ConA- SCM. The normal signal transduction through the c-kit receptor did not appear to be prerequisite for the acquisition of the RMCP-I+/II+ phenotype.