Substance P and other polycationic peptides are thought to stimulate mast cell degranulation via direct activation of G proteins. We investigated the ability of extracellularly applied substance P to translocate into mast cells and the ability of intracellularly applied substance P to stimulate degranulation. In addition, we studied by reverse transcription-PCR whether substance P-specific receptors are present in the mast cell membrane. To study translocation, a biologically active and enzymatically stable fluorescent analogue of substance P was synthesized. A rapid, substance P receptor- and energy-independent uptake of this peptide into pertussis toxin-treated and -untreated mast cells was demonstrated using confocal laser scanning microscopy. The peptide was shown to localize preferentially on or inside the mast cell granules using electron microscopic autoradiography with 125I-labeled all-D substance P and 3H-labeled substance P. Cell membrane capacitance measurements using the patchclamp technique demonstrated that intracellularly applied substance P induced calcium transients and activated mast cell exocytosis with a time delay that depended on peptide concentration (delay of 100-500 s at concentrations of substance P from 50 to 5 μM). Degranulation in response to intracellularly applied substance P was inhibited by GDPβS and pertussis toxin, suggesting that substance P acts via G protein activation. These results support the recently proposed model of a receptor-independent mechanism of peptide-induced mast cell degranulation, which assumes a direct interaction of peptides with G protein α subunits subsequent to their translocation across the plasma membrane.