Antimicrobial peptides, which have been isolated from many bacteria, fungi, plants, invertebrates and vertebrates, are an important component of the natural defenses of most living organisms. The isolated peptides are very heterogeneous in length, sequence and structure, but most of them are small, cationic and amphipathic. These peptides exhibit broad-spectrum activity against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, yeasts, fungi and enveloped viruses. A wide variety of human proteins and peptides also have antimicrobial activity and play important roles in innate immunity.
In this review we discuss three important groups of human antimicrobial peptides.
The defensins are cationic non-glycosylated peptides containing six cysteine residues that form three intramolecular disulfide bridges, resulting in a triplestranded -sheet structure. In humans, two classes of defensins can be found: α-defensins and β-defensins. The defensin-related HE2 isoforms will also be discussed. The second group is the family of histatins, which are small, cationic, histidine-rich peptides present in human saliva. Histatins adopt a random coil conformation in aqueous solvents and form a-helices in non-aqueous solvents. The third group comprises only one antimicrobial peptide, the cathelicidin LL-37. This peptide is derived proteolytically from the C-terminal end of the human CAP18 protein. Just like the histatins, it adopts a largely random coil conformation in a hydrophilic environment, and forms an a-helical structure in a hydrophobic environment.