Mast cells show dramatic morphological changes when undergoing exocytosis. We have investigated whether the first of those morphological changes, swelling of the secretory granule, precedes--and therefore possibly initiates--secretion or whether it occurs after fusion of the granule and plasma membranes. We used cell membrane capacitance to detect the moment when granule and plasma membrane become continuous. We measured large capacitance increases, often preceded by transients in capacitance. The rise-times of the capacitance increases were half-maximal at 2-59 msec. We observed cells with high-resolution video microscopy while these measurements were done. The capacitance increase always preceded the granular swelling that leads to exocytosis. To rule out the possibility that fusion was induced by a mechanical stress imparted by the internal pressure of a taut granule, we performed control experiments using cells in which vesicles were shrunken with hyperosmotic solutions. With these flaccid granules, again, the capacitance rise always preceded the swelling of the granules. We conclude that swelling cannot be the driving force for membrane fusion in this system.