Purpose of review: Defensins are a major family of antimicrobial peptides expressed predominantly in neutrophils and epithelial cells, and play important roles in innate immune defense against infectious pathogens. Their biological functions in and beyond innate immunity, structure and activity relationships, mechanisms of action, and therapeutic potential continue to be interesting research topics. This review examines recent progress in our understanding of alpha and theta-defensins – the two structural classes composed of members of myeloid origin.
Recent findings: A novel mode of antibacterial action is described for human enteric alpha-defensin 6, which forms structured nanonets to entrap bacterial pathogens and protect against bacterial invasion of the intestinal epithelium. The functional multiplicity and mechanistic complexity of defensins under different experimental conditions contribute to a debate over the role of enteric alpha-defensins in mucosal immunity against HIV-1 infection. Contrary to common belief, hydrophobicity rather than cationicity plays a dominant functional role in the action of human alpha-defensins; hydrophobicity-mediated high-order assembly endows human alpha-defensins with an extraordinary ability to acquire structural diversity and functional versatility. Growing evidence suggests that theta-defensins offer the best opportunity for therapeutic development as a novel class of broadly active anti-infective and anti-inflammatory agents.
Summary: Defensins are the ‘Swiss army knife’ in innate immunity against microbial pathogens. Their modes of action are often reminiscent of the story of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’. The functional diversity and mechanistic complexity, as well as therapeutic potential of defensins, will continue to attract attention to this important family of antimicrobial peptides.