Cytokeratins mediate epithelial innate defense through their antimicrobial properties

J Clin Invest. 2012 Oct;122(10):3665-77. doi: 10.1172/JCI64416. Epub 2012 Sep 24.


Epithelial cells express antimicrobial proteins in response to invading pathogens, although little is known regarding epithelial defense mechanisms during healthy conditions. Here we report that epithelial cytokeratins have innate defense properties because they constitutively produce cytoprotective antimicrobial peptides. Glycine-rich C-terminal fragments derived from human cytokeratin 6A were identified in bactericidal lysate fractions of human corneal epithelial cells. Structural analysis revealed that these keratin-derived antimicrobial peptides (KDAMPs) exhibited coil structures with low α-helical content. Synthetic analogs of these KDAMPS showed rapid bactericidal activity against multiple pathogens and protected epithelial cells against bacterial virulence mechanisms, while a scrambled peptide showed no bactericidal activity. However, the bactericidal activity of a specific KDAMP was somewhat reduced by glycine-alanine substitutions. KDAMP activity involved bacterial binding and permeabilization, but the activity was unaffected by peptide charge or physiological salt concentration. Knockdown of cytokeratin 6A markedly reduced the bactericidal activity of epithelial cell lysates in vitro and increased the susceptibility of murine corneas to bacterial adherence in vivo. These data suggest that epithelial cytokeratins function as endogenous antimicrobial peptides in the host defense against infection and that keratin-derived antimicrobials may serve as effective therapeutic agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Animals
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / chemistry
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / isolation & purification
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / pharmacology*
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / immunology
  • Bacteria / ultrastructure
  • Bacterial Adhesion / drug effects
  • Cell Fractionation
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Cell Wall / drug effects
  • Conjunctivitis, Bacterial / microbiology
  • Conjunctivitis, Bacterial / prevention & control
  • Epithelial Cells / immunology*
  • Epithelium, Corneal / cytology
  • Epithelium, Corneal / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Keratin-6 / chemistry
  • Keratin-6 / genetics
  • Keratin-6 / physiology*
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptide Fragments / chemistry
  • Peptide Fragments / pharmacology
  • Peptide Fragments / physiology
  • RNA Interference
  • RNA, Small Interfering / pharmacology
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides
  • Keratin-6
  • Peptide Fragments
  • RNA, Small Interfering