Since first described by Paul Ehrlich in 1878, mast cells have been mostly viewed as effectors of allergy. It has been only in the past two decades that mast cells have gained recognition for their involvement in other physiological and pathological processes. Mast cells have a widespread distribution and are found predominantly at the interface between the host and the external environment. Mast cell maturation, phenotype and function are a direct consequence of the local microenvironment and have a marked influence on their ability to specifically recognize and respond to various stimuli through the release of an array of biologically active mediators. These features enable mast cells to act as both first responders in harmful situations as well as to respond to changes in their environment by communicating with a variety of other cells implicated in physiological and immunological responses. Therefore, the critical role of mast cells in both innate and adaptive immunity, including immune tolerance, has gained increased prominence. Conversely, mast cell dysfunction has pointed to these cells as the main offenders in several chronic allergic/inflammatory disorders, cancer and autoimmune diseases. This review summarizes the current knowledge of mast cell function in both normal and pathological conditions with regards to their regulation, phenotype and role.