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Keywords:

  • antimicrobial peptides;
  • cell-penetrating peptides;
  • dermaseptin;
  • intracellular target;
  • membrane translocation

There is widespread acceptance that cationic antimicrobial peptides, apart from their membrane-permeabilizing/disrupting properties, also operate through interactions with intracellular targets, or disruption of key cellular processes. Examples of intracellular activity include inhibition of DNA and protein synthesis, inhibition of chaperone-assisted protein folding and enzymatic activity, and inhibition of cytoplasmic membrane septum formation and cell wall synthesis. The purpose of this minireview is to question some widely held views about intracellular-targeting antimicrobial peptides. In particular, I focus on the relative contributions of intracellular targeting and membrane disruption to the overall killing strategy of antimicrobial peptides, as well as on mechanisms whereby some peptides are able to translocate spontaneously across the plasma membrane. Currently, there are no more than three peptides that have been convincingly demonstrated to enter microbial cells without the involvement of stereospecific interactions with a receptor/docking molecule and, once in the cell, to interfere with cellular functions. From the limited data currently available, it seems unlikely that this property, which is isolated in particular peptide families, is also shared by the hundreds of naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides that differ in length, amino acid composition, sequence, hydrophobicity, amphipathicity, and membrane-bound conformation. Microbial cell entry and/or membrane damage associated with membrane phase/transient pore or long-lived transitions could be a feature common to intracellular-targeting antimicrobial peptides and mammalian cell-penetrating peptides that have an overrepresentation of one or two amino acids, i.e. Trp and Pro, His, or Arg. Differences in membrane lipid composition, as well as differential lipid recruitment by peptides, may provide a basis for microbial cell killing on one hand, and mammalian cell passage on the other.