BACKGROUND: Fc epsilon RI plays a central role in atopy, thus genetic variants of Fc epsilon RI-beta may alter receptor function to enhance atopic responses and may manifest as a more severe atopic phenotype and more symptomatic atopic disease. The immunological and clinical features of atopy in children with and without the Leu 181 variant of Fc epsilon RI-beta were compared. METHODS: Sixty British nuclear families, including 10 families with the Fc epsilon RI-beta variant Leu 181, recruited via a young proband with atopic asthma were analysed for atopic parameters including total IgE, specific IgE, and clinical atopic disorder. RESULTS: Compared with other children (combined atopic and non-atopic subjects), maternally inherited Leu 181 was associated with increased levels of total IgE (odds ratio (OR) 4.82, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.02 to 27.66, p < 0.01) and a positive IgE response to grass pollen allergen (OR 7.45, 95% CI 1.56 to 35.52, p < 0.005) but not wheeze (OR 1.97, 95% CI 0.56 to 7.69), asthma (OR 2.25, 95% CI 0.65 to 7.85), or required medications (OR 0.95, 95% CI 0.29 to 3.14). There were trends for each atopic parameter to be more marked in atopic children with maternally inherited Leu 181 than in atopic children without Leu 181. Children with maternal Leu 181 had significantly raised eosinophils but there was no difference in basophil levels compared with other atopic children. CONCLUSIONS: The Leu 181 variant of Fc epsilon RI-beta, or another identified variant in linkage disequilibrium, may promote the development of atopy.