The antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) are a special class of nonspecific cell-derived mediators with broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties. Some AMPs are produced routinely by the body, whereas others are primarily produced (or produced in greater quantities) in response to the presence of an invading pathogen. Research has begun exploring how AMPs can be used in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
AMPs may induce cell damage in microorganisms in a variety of ways, including by inflicting damage to membranes, destroying DNA and RNA, or interfering with cell-wall synthesis. Depending on the specific antimicrobial mechanism, a particular AMP may inhibit only certain groups of microbes (e.g., gram-positive or gram-negative bacteria) or it may be more broadly effective against bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses. Many AMPs are found on the skin, but they can also be found in other regions of the body.
A family of AMPs called defensins can be produced by epithelial cells throughout the body as well as by cellular defenses such as macrophages and neutrophils. Defensins may be secreted or act inside host cells; they combat microorganisms by damaging their plasma membranes. AMPs called bacteriocins are produced exogenously by certain members of the resident microbiota within the gastrointestinal tract. The genes coding for these types of AMPs are often carried on plasmids and can be passed between different species within the resident microbiota through lateral or horizontal gene transfer.
There are numerous other AMPs throughout the body. The characteristics of a few of the more significant AMPs are summarized in the table above.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology