Faculty Advisor

Terri A. Camesano

Faculty Advisor

Marsha Rolle

Faculty Advisor

Amy M. Peterson

Faculty Advisor

Ramanathan Nagarajan


Due to the escalating challenge of antibiotic resistance in bacteria over the past several decades, interest in the identification and development of antibiotic alternatives has intensified. Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which serve as part of the innate immune systems of most eukaryotic organisms, are being researched extensively as potential alternatives. However, the mechanism behind their bactericidal capabilities is not well understood. Previous studies have suggested that AMPs may first attach to the cell membranes, leading to pore formation caused by peptide insertion, lipid removal in the form of peptide-lipid aggregates, or a combination of both mechanisms. In addition to the lack of mechanistic knowledge, a significant hurdle in AMP-based drug development is their potential cytotoxicity to mammalian cells. Understanding AMP interactions with eukaryotic model membranes would allow therapeutics to be tailored for preferential action toward specific classes of bacterial membranes. In this study, we developed novel methods of quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation monitoring (QCM-D) data analysis to determine the fundamental mechanism of action between eukaryotic and bacterial membrane mimics and select membrane-active AMPs. A new technique for creating supported membranes composed entirely of anionic lipids was developed to model Gram-positive bacterial membranes. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) imaging was also used to capture the progression of AMP-induced changes in supported lipid membranes over time and to validate our method of QCM-D analysis. QCM-D and AFM were used to investigate the molecular-scale interactions of four peptides, alamethicin, chrysophsin-3, sheep myeloid antimicrobial peptide (SMAP-29) and indolicidin, with a supported zwitterionic membrane, which served as a model for eukaryotic cell membranes. Since established methods of QCM-D analysis were not sufficient to provide information about these interaction mechanisms, we developed a novel method of using QCM-D overtones to probe molecular events occurring within supported lipid membranes. Also, most previous studies that have used AFM imaging to investigate AMP-membrane interactions have been inconclusive due to AFM limitations and poor image quality. We were able to capture high-resolution AFM images that clearly show the progression of AMP-induced defects in the membrane. Each AMP produced a unique QCM-D signature that clearly distinguished their mechanism of action and provided information on peptide addition to and lipid removal from the membrane. Alamethicin, an alpha-helical peptide, predominantly demonstrated a pore formation mechanism. Chrysophsin-3 and SMAP-29, which are also alpha-helical peptides of varied lengths, inserted into the membrane and adsorbed to the membrane surface. Indolicidin, a shorter peptide that forms a folded, boat-shaped structure, was shown to adsorb and partially insert into the membrane. An investigation of rates at which the peptide actions were initiated revealed that the highest initial interaction rate was demonstrated by SMAP-29, the most cationic peptide in this study. The mechanistic variations in peptide action were related to their fundamental structural properties including length, net charge, hydrophobicity, hydrophobic moment, accessible surface area and the probability of alpha-helical secondary structures. Due to the charges associated with anionic lipids, previous studies have not been successful in forming consistent anionic supported lipid membranes, which were required to mimic Gram-positive bacterial membranes. We developed a new protocol for forming anionic supported lipid membranes and supported vesicle films using a vesicle fusion process. Chrysophsin-3 was shown to favor insertion into the anionic lipid bilayer and did not adsorb to the surface as it did with zwitterionic membranes. When introduced to supported anionic vesicle films, chrysophsin-3 caused some vesicles to rupture, likely through lipid membrane disruption. This study demonstrated that molecular-level interactions between antimicrobial peptides and model cell membranes are largely determined by peptide structure, peptide concentration, and membrane lipid composition. Novel techniques for analyzing QCM-D overtone data were also developed, which could enable the extraction of more molecular orientation and interaction dynamics information from other QCM-D studies. A new method of forming supported anionic membranes was also designed, which may be used to further investigate the behavior of bacterial membranes in future studies. Insight into AMP-membrane interactions and development of AMP structure-activity relationships will facilitate the selection and design of more efficient AMPs for use in therapeutics that could impact the lives of millions of people per year who are threatened by antibiotic-resistant organisms.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Chemical Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





supported lipid bilayer, QCM-D, AFM, antimicrobial peptides