A novel gene family coding for putative antimicrobial peptides was identified in the EST (expressed sequence tag) database of the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis, and one of these genes was molecularly cloned from the Northern European Ciona subspecies. In situ hybridization and immunocytochemical analysis revealed that the natural peptide is synthesized and stored in a distinct haemocyte type, the univacuolar non-refractile granulocytes. By semiquantitative RT–PCR (reverse transcription–PCR) analysis, it was shown that the expression of the gene is markedly up-regulated in haemocytes after immune challenge. To evaluate the antimicrobial potency of the putative defence protein, we synthesized a peptide corresponding to its cationic core region. The peptide was highly effective against Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria including several human and marine pathogens as well as the yeast Candida albicans. Notably, the antibacterial activity of the peptide was retained at salt concentrations of up to 450 mM NaCl. Using two different methods we demonstrated that the peptide kills Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria by permeabilizing their cytoplasmic membranes. CD spectroscopy revealed that, in the presence of liposomes composed of negatively charged phospholipids, the peptide undergoes a conformational change and adopts an α-helical structure. Moreover, the peptide was virtually non-cytolytic for mammalian erythrocytes. Hence, the designed salt-tolerant antimicrobial peptide may represent a valuable template for the development of novel antibiotics.

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