Although IFN enhance the cytotoxic activity of NK cells, K cells, and monocytes, IFN-alpha/beta and IFN-gamma did not stimulate the cytotoxic activity of rat peritoneal mast cells (PMC), but had an inhibitory effect. Preincubation for 2 h with 100 and 200 U/ml of IFN-gamma and IFN-alpha/beta, respectively, inhibited PMC cytotoxicity against WEHI-164 target cells. Lower concentrations of IFN-gamma (12.5 U/ml) and IFN-alpha/beta (25 U/ml) inhibited cytotoxicity of PMC after 8 h preincubation. The inhibitory effect of IFN was concentration and time dependent. In contrast to cytotoxicity, the release of histamine by PMC was not stimulated by the target cells WEHI-164 and there was no correlation between histamine release and cytotoxic activity of PMC. Specific antibody to subclasses of IFN prevented the inhibition of PMC cytotoxic activity, but preincubation with antibodies to the alternate subclass of IFN did not affect the observed inhibition. Moreover, the presence of both subclasses of IFN showed an additive inhibition of PMC cytotoxicity. The cytotoxic activity of PMC can be completely inhibited by the addition of anti-TNF during the assay. At high concentrations (400 U/ml), IFN inhibited the release of TNF from PMC. In the presence of RNA or protein synthesis inhibitors, IFN did not inhibit cytotoxicity of PMC further. We postulate that IFN may alter gene expression in mast cells in a manner that down-regulates their functions.