Cytotoxicity, a major obstacle in therapeutic application of antimicrobial peptides, is controlled by leucine-zipper-like sequences in melittin and other naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides. Magainin 2 shows significantly lower cytotoxicity than many naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides and lacks this structural element. To investigate the consequences of introducing a leucine zipper sequence in magainin 2, a novel analogue (Mag-mut) was designed by rearranging only the positions of its hydrophobic amino acids to include this structural element. Both magainin 2 and Mag-mut showed appreciable similarities in their secondary structures in the presence of negatively charged lipid vesicles, in localizing and permeabilizing the selected bacteria and exhibiting bactericidal activities. However, Mag-mut bound and localized strongly on to the mammalian cells tested and exhibited significantly higher cytotoxicity than magainin 2. Only Mag-mut, but not magainin 2, permeabilized human red blood cells and zwitterionic lipid vesicles. In contrast with magainin 2, Mag-mut self-assembled in an aqueous environment and bound co-operatively on to zwitterionic lipid vesicles. The peptides formed pores of different sizes on to a selected mammalian cell. The results of the present study indicate an important role of the leucine zipper sequence in the cytotoxicity of Mag-mut and demonstrate that its introduction into a non-toxic peptide, without altering the amino acid composition, can render cytotoxicity.

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