Abstract Mast cells have been most extensively studied in their traditional role as an early effector cell of allergic disease. However, in the majority of individuals, it might be the role of this cell as a sentinel in host defense that is most important. Mast cells have been repeatedly demonstrated to play a critical role in defense against bacterial infections, and evidence for their involvement in early responses to viral and fungal pathogens is growing. Mast cells are activated during innate immune responses by multiple mechanisms, including well-established responses to complement components. In addition, novel mechanisms have emerged as a result of the explosion of knowledge in our understanding of pattern-recognition receptors. The mast cell shares many features with other innate immune effector cells, such as neutrophils and macrophages. However, a unique role for mast cells is defined not only by their extensive mediator profile but also by their ability to interact with the vasculature, to expedite selective cell recruitment, and to set the stage for an appropriate acquired response.