Incubation of either C3a, C3ades Arg, or synthetic analogues of the C-terminal sequence of C3a with purified rat peritoneal mast cells resulted in a rapid and dose-dependent histamine release. The natural factors C3a and C3ades Arg were the most active of the factors tested exhibiting EC50 values of 3.3 and 2.2 microM, respectively. The corresponding 21- and 22-residue C-terminal analogues of C3a (Y21R and Y21) were less potent than intact factor exhibiting EC50 values of 10.9 and 25.1 microM, respectively. Histamine was released in a nonlytic manner and the mast cell stimulation by both natural and synthetic factors was sensitive to pertussis toxin, neuraminidase, benzalkonium chloride, and to an excess of calcium. C3a stimulated the generation of inositol polyphosphates that was inhibited by either pertussis toxin or benzalkonium chloride. The C3a anaphylatoxin also directly stimulates purified G proteins (i.e., GTPase activity) in a dose-dependent manner. The evident correlation between efficiency of C3a and C3a analogues to stimulate purified G proteins and their capacity to induce cellular histamine release led us to conclude that C3a fails to activate mast cells via a mechanism involving specific receptors on the cell. Instead, we propose that C3a either causes direct activation of G proteins of the Gi subtype, with a subsequent activation of phospholipase C, or interacts with a binding site of the cell surface specific for cationic molecules that is coupled to the G protein cascade.