Defensins represent an important class of antimicrobial peptides. These effector molecules of the innate immune system act as endogenous antibiotics to protect the organism against infections with pathogenic microorganisms. Mammalian defensins are classified into three distinct sub-families (α-, β- and θ-defensins) according to their specific intramolecular disulfide-bond pattern. The peptides exhibit an antimicrobial activity against a broad spectrum of microorganisms including bacteria and fungi. Alpha-Defensins are primarily synthesised in neutrophils and intestinal Paneth cells. They play a role in the pathogenesis of intestinal diseases and may regulate the flora of the intestinal tract. An equine intestinal α-defensin (DEFA1), the first characterised in the Laurasiatheria, shows a broad antimicrobial spectrum against human and equine pathogens. Here we report a first investigation of the repertoire of equine intestinal α-defensins. The equine genome was screened for putative α-defensin genes by using known α-defensin sequences as matrices. Based on the obtained sequence information, a set of oligonucleotides specific to the α-defensin gene-family was designed. The products generated by reverse-transcriptase PCR with cDNA from the small intestine as template were sub-cloned and numerous clones were sequenced.
Thirty-eight equine intestinal α-defensin transcripts were determined. After translation it became evident that at least 20 of them may code for functional peptides. Ten transcripts lacked matching genomic sequences and for 14 α-defensin genes apparently present in the genome no appropriate transcript could be verified. In other cases the same genomic exons were found in different transcripts.
The large repertoire of equine α-defensins found in this study points to a particular importance of these peptides regarding animal health and protection from infectious diseases. Moreover, these findings make the horse an excellent species to study biological properties of α-defensins. Interestingly, the peptides were not found in other species of the Laurasiatheria to date. Comparison of the obtained transcripts with the genomic sequences in the current assembly of the horse (EquCab2.0) indicates that it is yet not complete and/or to some extent falsely assembled.