Basis for Selectivity of Cationic Antimicrobial Peptides for Bacterial Versus Mammalian Membranes Journal Articles uri icon

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  • Novel cationic antimicrobial peptides typified by structures such as KKKKKKAAXAAWAAXAA-NH2, where X = Phe/Trp, and several of their analogues display high activity against a variety of bacteria but exhibit no hemolytic activity even at high dose levels in mammalian erythrocytes. To elucidate their mechanism of action and source of selectivity for bacterial membranes, phospholipid mixtures mimicking the compositions of natural bacterial membranes (containing anionic lipids) and mammalian membranes (containing zwitterionic lipids + cholesterol) were challenged with the peptides. We found that peptides readily inserted into bacterial lipid mixtures, although no insertion was detected in model "mammalian" membranes. The depth of peptide insertion into model bacterial membranes was estimated by Trp fluorescence quenching using doxyl groups variably positioned along the phospholipid acyl chains. Peptide antimicrobial activity generally increased with increasing depth of peptide insertion. The overall results, in conjunction with molecular modeling, support an initial electrostatic interaction step in which bacterial membranes attract and bind peptide dimers onto the bacterial surface, followed by the "sinking" of the hydrophobic core segment to a peptide sequence-dependent depth of approximately 2.5-8 A into the membrane, largely parallel to the membrane surface. Antimicrobial activity was likely enhanced by the fact that the peptide sequences contain AXXXA sequence motifs, which promote their dimerization, and possibly higher oligomerization, as assessed by SDS-polyacrylamide gel analysis and fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments. The high selectivity of these peptides for nonmammalian membranes, combined with their activity toward a wide spectrum of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria and yeast, while retaining water solubility, represent significant advantages of this class of peptides.


  • Glukhov, Evgenia
  • Stark, Margareta
  • Burrows, Lori
  • Deber, Charles M

publication date

  • October 2005

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