Structure and Function in Antimicrobial Piscidins: Histidine Position, Directionality of Membrane Insertion, and pH-Dependent Permeabilization

J Am Chem Soc. 2019 Jun 26;141(25):9837-9853. doi: 10.1021/jacs.9b00440. Epub 2019 Jun 13.


Piscidins are histidine-enriched antimicrobial peptides that interact with lipid bilayers as amphipathic α-helices. Their activity at acidic and basic pH in vivo makes them promising templates for biomedical applications. This study focuses on p1 and p3, both 22-residue-long piscidins with 68% sequence identity. They share three histidines (H3, H4, and H11), but p1, which is significantly more permeabilizing, has a fourth histidine (H17). This study investigates how variations in amphipathic character associated with histidines affect the permeabilization properties of p1 and p3. First, we show that the permeabilization ability of p3, but not p1, is strongly inhibited at pH 6.0 when the conserved histidines are partially charged and H17 is predominantly neutral. Second, our neutron diffraction measurements performed at low water content and neutral pH indicate that the average conformation of p1 is highly tilted, with its C-terminus extending into the opposite leaflet. In contrast, p3 is surface bound with its N-terminal end tilted toward the bilayer interior. The deeper membrane insertion of p1 correlates with its behavior at full hydration: an enhanced ability to tilt, bury its histidines and C-terminus, induce membrane thinning and defects, and alter membrane conductance and viscoelastic properties. Furthermore, its pH-resiliency relates to the neutral state favored by H17. Overall, these results provide mechanistic insights into how differences in the histidine content and amphipathicity of peptides can elicit different directionality of membrane insertion and pH-dependent permeabilization. This work features complementary methods, including dye leakage assays, NMR-monitored titrations, X-ray and neutron diffraction, oriented CD, molecular dynamics, electrochemical impedance spectroscopy, surface plasmon resonance, and quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / chemistry
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / metabolism*
  • Fish Proteins / chemistry
  • Fish Proteins / metabolism
  • Fishes
  • Fluoresceins / metabolism
  • Fluorescent Dyes / metabolism
  • Histidine / chemistry*
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Permeability / drug effects
  • Phosphatidylcholines / chemistry
  • Phosphatidylglycerols / chemistry
  • Surface-Active Agents / chemistry
  • Surface-Active Agents / metabolism*


  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides
  • Fish Proteins
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Phosphatidylglycerols
  • Surface-Active Agents
  • Histidine
  • 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoylphosphatidylcholine
  • fluorexon