Mast cells dispersed from human skin and purified by density-gradient centrifugation were cytotoxic toward the mouse fibrosarcoma cell line WEHI-164. Skin mast cells were not cytotoxic toward the NK cell-sensitive cell line K562. Killing of WEHI-164 occurred over a prolonged (greater than 18 h) period of incubation with mast cells and was effectively inhibited by polyclonal antibodies and mAb against TNF-alpha suggesting that this cytokine plays an important role in mast cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Whereas lysates of rat peritoneal mast cells exhibited cytotoxicity toward WEHI-164, this was not found with lysates of unstimulated skin mast cells suggesting that TNF-alpha is not stored preformed in the latter. Killing of WEHI-164 cells by skin mast cells was enhanced by anti-IgE and there was a significant correlation between histamine release and cytotoxicity after activation with this stimulus. We conclude that human skin mast cells are a potential source of TNF-alpha and suggest that these cells, particularly after activation, might contribute to the synthesis of this multifunctional cytokine in inflammatory sites.