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Paneth cells, secretory epithelial cells of the small intestinal crypts, are proposed to contribute to local host defense. Both mouse and human Paneth cells express a collection of antimicrobial proteins, including members of a family of antimicrobial peptides named defensins. In this study, data from an anchored polymerase chain reaction (PCR) strategy suggest that only two defensin mRNA isoforms are expressed in the human small intestine, far fewer than the number expressed in the mouse. The two isoforms detected by this PCR approach were human defensin family members, HD-5 and HD-6. The gene encoding HD-6 was cloned and characterized. HD-6 has a genomic organization similar to HD-5, and the two genes have a striking pattern of sequence similarity localized chiefly in their proximal 5'-flanking regions. Analysis of human fetal RNA by reverse transcriptase-PCR detected enteric defensin HD-5 mRNA at 13.5 weeks of gestation in the small intestine and the colon, but by 17 weeks HD-5 was restricted to the small intestine. HD-6 mRNA was detectable at 13.5-17 weeks of gestation in the small intestine but not in the colon. This pattern of expression coincides with the previously described appearance of Paneth cells as determined by ultrastructural approaches. Northern analysis of total RNA from small intestine revealed quantifiable enteric defensin mRNA in five samples from 19 24 weeks of gestation at levels approximately 40-250-fold less than those observed in the adult, with HD-5 mRNA levels greater than those of HD-6 in all samples. In situ hybridization analysis localized expression of enteric defensin mRNA to Paneth cells at 24 weeks of gestation, as is seen in the newborn term infant and the adult. Consistent with earlier morphological studies, the ratio of Paneth cell number per crypt was reduced in samples at 24 weeks of gestation compared with the adult, and this lower cell number partially accounts for the lower defensin mRNA levels as determined by Northern analysis. Low levels of enteric defensin expression in the fetus may be characteristic of an immaturity of local defense, which is thought to predispose infants born prematurely to infection from intestinal microorganisms.


Journal article


J Biol Chem

Publication Date





4038 - 4045


Amino Acid Sequence, Animals, Anti-Infective Agents, Base Sequence, Blood Proteins, Cloning, Molecular, Colon, DNA Primers, Defensins, Embryonic and Fetal Development, Gene Expression Regulation, Humans, Intestinal Mucosa, Intestine, Small, Mice, Molecular Sequence Data, Polymerase Chain Reaction, Recombinant Proteins, Regulatory Sequences, Nucleic Acid, Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid