Recent evidence suggests that nonadrenergic airway relaxation may be controlled by vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). The magnitude and duration of smooth muscle relaxation in response to VIP may be influenced by rates of peptide degradation after release from efferent peptidergic neurons. To explore the potential role of mast cell mediators in modulating neural control of airway tone, we studied the effect of the mast cell proteases tryptase and chymase on airway smooth muscle relaxation induced by VIP in ferret airway. Tracheal rings precontracted by serotonin (10(-6) M) in a muscle bath were relaxed by VIP (10(-7) M). We found that protease-rich supernatant obtained by degranulation of dog mastocytoma cells reversed VIP-induced relaxation, as did highly purified tryptase and chymase incubated with the tracheal rings. Either enzyme completely reversed the effect of VIP, but tryptase was more potent than chymase, paralleling previous test tube observations on the relative rates of VIP cleavage by the two enzymes. Inhibitors of mast cell tryptase and chymase preincubated with the supernatant or with the purified proteases prevented reversal of VIP-induced relaxation. Mast cell proteases did not reverse the tracheal relaxation caused by the nonpeptide adrenergic agonist isoproterenol. These findings show that mast cell proteases tryptase and chymase counteract the smooth muscle relaxant effects of VIP in ferret trachea and suggest a potential role for the mast cell proteases in the modulation of nonadrenergic neural control of airway tone by VIP.