Defensins are antimicrobial and cytotoxic peptides that contain 29-35 amino acid residues, including six invariant cysteines whose intramolecular disulfide bonds cyclize and stabilize them in a complexly folded, triple-stranded beta-sheet configuration. Generated by the proteolytic processing of 93-95 amino acid precursor peptides, the constitute > 5% of the total cellular protein in human and rabbit neutrophils (polymorphonucleated neutrophils--PMN) and are also produced by rabbit lung macrophages and by mouse and rabbit small intestinal Paneth cells. Despite their prominence in rat PMN, defensins are not found in murine PMN. The antimicrobial spectrum of defensins includes gram positive and gram negative bacteria, mycobacteria, T. pallidum, many fungi, and some enveloped viruses. Defensins exert nonspecific cytotoxic activity against a wide range of normal and malignant targets, including cells resistant to TNF-alpha and NK-cytolytic factor. They appear to kill mammalian target cells and microorganisms by a common mechanism, which involves initial electrostatic interactions with negatively charged target cell surface molecules (likely the head groups of polar membrane lipids), followed by insertion into the cell membranes which they permeabilize, forming voltage-regulated channels. In addition to their antimicrobial and cytotoxic properties, some defensins act as opsonins, while others inhibit protein kinase C, bind specifically to the ACTH receptor and block steroidogenesis or act as selective chemoattractants for monocytes. Defensins are a newly delineated family of effector molecules whose contribution to host defense, inflammation, and cytotoxicity may be considerable for humans, even though it is unlikely to be revealed by experimentation with mice.