Cooperative Modes of Action of Antimicrobial Peptides Characterized with Atomistic Simulations: A Study on Cecropin B
Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) are widely occurring host defense agents of interest as one route for addressing the growing problem of multidrug-resistant pathogens. Understanding the mechanisms behind their antipathogen activity is instrumental in designing new AMPs. Herein, we present an all-atom molecular dynamics and free energy study on cecropin B (CB) and its constituent domains. We find a cooperative mechanism in which CB inserts into an anionic model membrane with its amphipathic N-terminal segment, supported by the hydrophobic C-terminal segment of a second peptide. The two peptides interact via a Glu···Lys salt bridge and together sustain a pore in the membrane. Using a modified membrane composition, we demonstrate that when the lower leaflet is overall neutral, insertion of the cationic segment is retarded and thus this mode of action is membrane specific. The observed mode of action utilizes a flexible hinge, a common structural motif among AMPs, which allows CB to insert into the membrane using either or both termini. Data from both unbiased trajectories and enhanced sampling simulations indicate that a requirement for CB to be an effective AMP is the interaction of its hydrophobic C-terminal segment with the membrane. Simulations of these segments in isolation reveal their aggregation in the membrane and a different mechanism of supporting pore formation. Together, our results show the complex interaction of different structural motifs of AMPs and, in particular, a potential role for electronegative side chains in an overall cationic AMP.