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Mammalian epithelial surfaces are remarkable for their ability to provide critical physiologic functions in the face of frequent microbial challenges. The fact that these mucosal surfaces remain infection-free in the normal host suggests that highly effective mechanisms of host defense have evolved to protect these environmentally exposed tissues. Throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, endogenous genetically encoded antimicrobial peptides have been shown to be key elements in the response to epithelial compromise and microbial invasion. In mammals, a variety of such peptides have been identified, including the well-characterized defensins and cathelicidins. A major source of these host defense molecules is circulating phagocytic leukocytes. However, more recently, it has been shown that resident epithelial cells of the skin and respiratory, alimentary, and genitourinary tracts also synthesize and release antimicrobial peptides. Both in vitro and in vivo data support the hypothesis that these molecules are important contributors to intrinsic mucosal immunity. Alterations in their level of expression or biologic activity can predispose the organism to microbial infection. The regulatory and developmental aspects of antimicrobial peptide synthesis are discussed from a perspective that emphasizes the possible relevance to pediatric medicine.

(C) International Pediatrics Research Foundation, Inc. 1999. All Rights Reserved.