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Defensins: antimicrobial peptides of innate immunity

Key Points

  • What are defensins? What are the structural characteristics of the three vertebrate defensin subclasses?

  • Which tissues and cells contain abundant defensins?

  • How are defensins synthesized and processed?

  • How is the synthesis and release of defensins regulated?

  • What are the effects of defensins on biological membranes and on microorganisms?

  • How do bacteria respond to limit the damage by defensins?

  • What are the biological functions of defensins in innate immunity?

Abstract

The production of natural antibiotic peptides has emerged as an important mechanism of innate immunity in plants and animals. Defensins are diverse members of a large family of antimicrobial peptides, contributing to the antimicrobial action of granulocytes, mucosal host defence in the small intestine and epithelial host defence in the skin and elsewhere. This review, inspired by a spate of recent studies of defensins in human diseases and animal models, focuses on the biological function of defensins.

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Figure 1: Sequences and the disulphide pairing of cysteines of α-, β- and θ-defensins.
Figure 2: Cartoon structures of representative mammalian defensins and an insect defensin.
Figure 3: Human neutrophil peptide α-defensin synthesis and release onto microorganisms.
Figure 4: The carpet–wormhole model of action of defensins.
Figure 5: Killing of Salmonella by human defensins secreted by Paneth cells.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge many influential discussions with R. Lehrer and C. Bevins. This work would not have been possible without the consistent financial support from the National Institutes of Health and the Will Rogers Fund.

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HBD1

HBD2

HBD3

HBD4

HD5

HD6

HNP1

HNP4

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Ganz, T. Defensins: antimicrobial peptides of innate immunity. Nat Rev Immunol 3, 710–720 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nri1180

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