Background: Enteric antimicrobial peptides secreted from Paneth cells, including alpha-defensins (in mice named cryptdins), are key effector molecules of innate immunity in the small intestine. The importance of Paneth cells alpha-defensins emerged from studies of enteric bacterial infection in genetically modified mice, as well as from recent studies linking reduced levels of these alpha-defensins to Crohn's disease localized to the ileum. However, analysis of expression of Paneth cell alpha-defensins is incomplete. We therefore performed a comprehensive evaluation of the distribution of antimicrobial molecules along the mouse small intestinal tract to identify potential variations in regional expression.
Results: In conventionally reared mice, the repertoire of Paneth cell antimicrobials differs between duodenum and ileum. In contrast to the uniform expression of most Paneth cell antimicrobials, both cryptdin 4 and cryptdin-related sequences (CRS) 4C peptides were expressed at progressively increasing amounts (101- and 104-fold, respectively) comparing duodenum and ileum. In tissues other than the small intestine, expression of CRS peptides was noted in thymus and caecum. Most Paneth cell products were also produced in the small intestine of germ-free mice at levels similar to those in controls, however CRS4C and RegIIIgamma had reduced levels in the former (3- and 8-fold, respectively). No significant changes in expression levels of Paneth cell antimicrobial peptides was observed after oral challenge with either Salmonella enterica serovar typhimurium or Listeria monocytogenes, supporting current notions on the constitutive nature of this defensive system.
Conclusion: The repertoire of antimicrobial peptides changes along the small intestinal tract, and a subset of these molecules are up-regulated upon colonization, but not in response to enteric bacterial pathogens. The changes detected upon colonization suggest that Paneth cell antimicrobial peptides may play an important role in commensal microbial homeostasis, in addition to their proposed role in protection against infection. In addition, the differential expression of CRS4C along the small intestine suggests mechanisms of regulation that are distinct from other Paneth cell derived antimicrobial peptides.