Short cationic, amphipathic antimicrobial peptides are multi-functional molecules that have roles in host defense as direct microbicides and modulators of the immune response. While a general mechanism of microbicidal activity involves the selective disruption and permeabilization of cell membranes, the relationships between peptide sequence and membrane activity are still under investigation. Here, we review the diverse functions that AMPs collectively have in host defense, and show that these functions can be multiplexed with a membrane mechanism of activity derived from the generation of negative Gaussian membrane curvature. As AMPs preferentially generate this curvature in model bacterial cell membranes, the selective generation of negative Gaussian curvature provides AMPs with a broad mechanism to target microbial membranes. The amino acid constraints placed on AMPs by the geometric requirement to induce negative Gaussian curvature are consistent with known AMP sequences. This 'saddle-splay curvature selection rule' is not strongly restrictive so AMPs have significant compositional freedom to multiplex membrane activity with other useful functions. The observation that certain proteins involved in cellular processes which require negative Gaussian curvature contain domains with similar motifs as AMPs, suggests this rule may be applicable to other curvature-generating proteins. Since our saddle-splay curvature design rule is based upon both a mechanism of activity and the existing motifs of natural AMPs, we believe it will assist the development of synthetic antimicrobials.
Keywords: Antibiotic; Antimicrobial Peptide; Drug Design; Membrane Curvature; Membrane Disruption; Peptide-Membrane Interactions; Pore Formation; Small Angle X-ray Scattering.