The potential for adaptive maintenance of diversity in insect antimicrobial peptides

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 May 26;371(1695):20150291. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0291.


Genes involved in immune defence are among the fastest evolving in the genomes of many species. Interestingly, however, genes encoding antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) have shown little evidence for adaptive divergence in arthropods, despite the centrality of these peptides in direct killing of microbial pathogens. This observation, coupled with a failure to detect phenotypic consequence of genetic variation in AMPs, has led to the hypothesis that individual AMPs make minor contributions to overall immune defence and that AMPs instead act as a collective cocktail. Recent data, however, have suggested an alternative explanation for the apparent lack of adaptive divergence in AMP genes. Molecular evolutionary and phenotypic data have begun to suggest that variant AMP alleles may be maintained through balancing selection in invertebrates, a pattern similar to that observed in several vertebrate AMPs. Signatures of balancing selection include high rates of non-synonymous polymorphism, trans-species amino acid polymorphisms, and convergence of amino acid states across the phylogeny. In this review, we revisit published literature on insect AMP genes and analyse newly available population genomic datasets in Drosophila, finding enrichment for patterns consistent with adaptive maintenance of polymorphism.This article is part of the themed issue 'Evolutionary ecology of arthropod antimicrobial peptides'.

Keywords: antimicrobial peptide; balancing selection; convergent evolution; insect immunity; trans-species polymorphism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Infective Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / genetics*
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / metabolism
  • Drosophila / genetics*
  • Drosophila / immunology*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Insect Proteins / genetics*
  • Insect Proteins / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides
  • Insect Proteins