Biochemical mechanisms of desensitization were explored by using peritoneal mouse mast cells saturated with monoclonal mouse IgE anti-DNP antibody. It was found that a 1-min incubation of the sensitized cells with 0.01 micrograms/ml DNP-HSA in the absence of Ca2+ was sufficient to desensitize the cells completely. The treated cells failed to release a detectable amount of histamine upon incubation with an optimal concentration (0.1 to 1.0 micrograms/ml) of DNP-HSA and Ca2+. Determination of the number of antigen molecules bound to mast cells revealed that only a small (less than 10%) fraction of cell-bound IgE antibody molecules reacted with desensitizing antigen, and that desensitized cells and untreated (sensitized) cells could bind comparable amounts of antigen upon incubation with rechallenging antigen. However, the binding of antigen molecules to desensitized cells failed to induce any of the early biochemical events, i.e., phospholipid methylation, cAMP rise, and 45Ca uptake, as well as histamine release. It was also found that intracellular cAMP levels in desensitized cells were comparable to those in sensitized cells. Desensitization by a suboptimal concentration of DNP-HSA was prevented by inhibitors of methyltransferases, such as 3-deaza adenosine plus L-homocysteine thiolactone. Sensitized cells pretreated with 0.01 micrograms/ml DNP-HSA in the absence of Ca2+ and in the presence of the methyltransferase inhibitors responded to an optimal concentration of antigen for histamine release when they were rechallenged in the presence of Ca2+. Inhibition of desensitization by methyltransferase inhibitors was reversed by the addition of S-adenosyl-L-methionine to the system. The results indicated that the activation of methyltransferases, induced by receptor bridging, is involved in the process of desensitization. Desensitization was inhibited by reversible inhibitors of serine proteases, such as p-aminobenzamidine, indole, and synthesized substrates of rat mast cell proteases. It was also found that diisopropylfluorophosphate (DFP), an irreversible inhibitor of serine proteases, completely blocked desensitization at the concentration of 10 to 40 nM. This concentration of DFP did not affect the antigen-induced histamine release, whereas 100- to 1000-fold higher concentrations of DFP did inhibit histamine release. The results suggest that serine proteases are involved in both the induction of histamine release and desensitization, and that the protease involved in desensitization is distinct from that involved in triggering histamine release.