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Biochem J. May 1, 2000; 347(Pt 3): 633–641.
PMCID: PMC1220998

Large-scale synthesis and functional elements for the antimicrobial activity of defensins.


Human neutrophil defensins, and their analogues incorporating anionic, hydrophobic or cationic residues at the N- and C-termini, were synthesized by solid-phase procedures. The synthetic defensins were examined for their microbicidal activity against Candida albicans, two Gram-negative bacteria (Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans and Porphyromonas gingivalis) and two Gram-positive bacteria (Streptococcus gordonii and Streptococcus mutans). The human neutrophil peptide 1 (HNP1) and HNP2 were found to be potent candidacidal agents. HNP3, which differs by one amino acid at the N-terminus of its sequence, was totally inactive. The Gram-negative bacteria A. actinomycetemcomitans and P. gingivalis and the Gram-positive bacteria S. gordonii and S. mutans were insensitive to human defensins. However, the insertion of two basic residues, such as arginine, at both the N-terminus and the C-terminus of HNP2 significantly enhanced antifungal and antibacterial activity. The addition of anionic residues, such as aspartic acid, at the N- and C-termini rendered the molecule totally inactive. The presence of two hydrophobic amino acids, such as valine, at the N-terminus of HNP2 and of two basic arginine residues at its C-terminus resulted in molecules that were optimally active against these oral pathogens. The results suggest that the N- and C-terminal residues in defensin peptides are the crucial functional elements that determine their microbicidal potency. The three-dimensional structure of all defensins constitutes the same amphiphilic beta-sheet structure, with the polar face formed by the N- and C-terminal residues playing an important role in defining microbicidal potency and the antimicrobial spectrum. The enhanced microbicidal activity observed for defensin peptides with two basic residues at both the N- and C-termini could be due to optimization of the amphiphilicity of the structure, which could facilitate specific interactions with the microbial membranes.

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