The anaphylatoxin C5a is a potent trigger for basophil degranulations, but in contrast to IgE-dependent basophil activation, it does not result in the synthesis of sulfidoleukotrienes (leukotriene C4/D4/E4). Thus, degranulation and the generation of lipid mediators are separately regulated cellular responses. Exposure of human blood basophils to the cytokine IL-3 alone does not induce the release of histamine in cells from most donors and never leads to the generation of LTC4, indicating that IL-3 is not a direct agonist for basophil mediator release. However, preincubation of basophils with IL-3 enhances the degranulation response to C5a. Most importantly, IL-3 "primes" basophils to release large amounts of leukotriene C4 after challenge with C5a (mean of 50 gp LTC4 per nanograms cellular histamine), while neither peptide alone is capable of inducing the formation of bioactive lipids. This effect is dose dependent, occurring at IL-3 concentrations considerably lower than are required to stimulate the growth of bone marrow progenitor cells. IL-3 affects the extent but not the time course of basophil degranulation, and leukotriene release of cells sequentially exposed to IL-3 and C5a occurs very rapidly concomitant with degranulation. A preincubation of the basophils with IL-3 is strictly required for C5a-induced LTC4 synthesis, but not for an enhancement of degranulation. Priming for C5a-induced lipid mediator generation occurs rapidly after exposure of the cells to IL-3, starting at 1 min and reaching maximal effects at 5 min, but this altered state of responsiveness is relatively long lasting. Cell fractionation studies indicate that the basophil is the source of lipid mediators and that IL-3 affects the basophil response directly. This study demonstrates that IL-3 is a potent modifier of effector functions of mature basophils; this is possibly of greater in vivo significance than its growth factor properties. The large amounts of LTC4 formed after triggering of IL-3-primed basophils may not only enhance but also qualitatively change the pathophysiological consequences of complement activation, and this might be important in the pathogenesis of immediate type hypersensitivity reactions, shock syndromes, and inflammation.