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Biochem J. 1999 Aug 1;341 ( Pt 3):501-13.

Structure and organization of the human antimicrobial peptide LL-37 in phospholipid membranes: relevance to the molecular basis for its non-cell-selective activity.

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  • 1Department of Biological Chemistry, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.


The antimicrobial peptide LL-37 belongs to the cathelicidin family and is the first amphipathic alpha-helical peptide isolated from human. LL-37 is considered to play an important role in the first line of defence against local infection and systemic invasion of pathogens at sites of inflammation and wounds. Understanding its mode of action may assist in the development of antimicrobial agents mimicking those of the human immune system. In vitro studies revealed that LL-37 is cytotoxic to both bacterial and normal eukaryotic cells. To gain insight into the mechanism of its non-cell-selective cytotoxicity, we synthesized and structurally and functionally characterized LL-37, its N-terminal truncated form FF-33, and their fluorescent derivatives (which retained structure and activity). The results showed several differences, between LL-37 and other native antimicrobial peptides, that may shed light on its in vivo activities. Most interestingly, LL-37 exists in equilibrium between monomers and oligomers in solution at very low concentrations. Also, it is significantly resistant to proteolytic degradation in solution, and when bound to both zwitterionic (mimicking mammalian membranes) and negatively charged membranes (mimicking bacterial membranes). The results also showed a role for the N-terminus in proteolytic resistance and haemolytic activity, but not in antimicrobial activity. The LL-37 mode of action with negatively charged membranes suggests a detergent-like effect via a 'carpet-like' mechanism. However, the ability of LL-37 to oligomerize in zwitterionic membranes might suggest the formation of a transmembrane pore in normal eukaryotic cells. To examine this possibility we used polarized attenuated total reflectance Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and found that the peptide is predominantly alpha-helical and oriented nearly parallel with the surface of zwitterionic-lipid membranes. This result does not support the channel-forming hypothesis, but rather it supports the detergent-like effect.

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