Ancient origin of mast cells

G. William Wong, Lisheng Zhuo, Koji Kimata, Bing K. Lam, Nori Satoh, Richard L. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


The sentinel roles of mammalian mast cells (MCs) in varied infections raised the question of their evolutionary origin. We discovered that the test cells in the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis morphologically and histochemically resembled cutaneous human MCs. Like the latter, C. intestinalis test cells stored histamine and varied heparin·serine protease complexes in their granules. Moreover, they exocytosed these preformed mediators when exposed to compound 48/80. In support of the histamine data, a C. intestinalis-derived cDNA was isolated that resembled that which encodes histidine decarboxylase in human MCs. Like heparin-expressing mammalian MCs, activated test cells produced prostaglandin D2 and contained cDNAs that encode a protein that resembles the synthase needed for its biosynthesis in human MCs. The accumulated morphological, histochemical, biochemical, and molecular biology data suggest that the test cells in C. intestinalis are the counterparts of mammalian MCs that reside in varied connective tissues. The accumulated data point to an ancient origin of MCs that predates the emergence of the chordates >500 million years ago, well before the development of adaptive immunity. The remarkable conservation of MCs throughout evolution is consistent with their importance in innate immunity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)314-318
Number of pages5
JournalBiochemical and Biophysical Research Communications
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 22 2014


  • Ciona intestinalis
  • Heparin
  • Histamine
  • Mast cell
  • Serine protease

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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