Antimicrobial peptides in the female reproductive tract: A critical component of the mucosal immune barrier with physiological and clinical implications

Victoria L. Yarbrough, Sean Winkle, Melissa M. Herbst-Kralovetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

155 Scopus citations


Background: At the interface of the external environment and the mucosal surface of the female reproductive tract (FRT) lies a first-line defense against pathogen invasion that includes antimicrobial peptides (AMP). Comprised of a unique class of multifunctional, amphipathic molecules, AMP employ a wide range of functions to limit microbial invasion and replication within host cells as well as independently modulate the immune system, dampen inflammation and maintain tissue homeostasis. The role of AMP in barrier defense at the level of the skin and gut has received much attention as of late. Given the far reaching implications for women's health, maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality, and sexually transmissible and polymicrobial diseases, we herein review the distribution and function of key AMP throughout the female reproductive mucosa and assess their role as an essential immunological barrier to microbial invasion throughout the reproductive cycle of a woman's lifetime. Methods: A comprehensive search in PubMed/Medline was conducted related to AMP general structure, function, signaling, expression, distribution and barrier function ofAMPin the FRT, hormone regulation ofAMP, the microbiome of the FRT, andAMPin relation to implantation, pregnancy, fertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, complications of pregnancy and assisted reproductive technology. Results: AMP are amphipathic peptides that target microbes for destruction and have been conserved throughout all living organisms. In the FRT, several major classes of AMP are expressed constitutively and others are inducible at the mucosal epithelium and by immune cells. AMP expression is also under the influence of sex hormones, varying throughout the menstrual cycle, and dependent on the vaginal microbiome. AMP can prevent infection with sexually transmissible and opportunistic pathogens of the female reproductive tissues, although emerging understanding of vaginal dysbiosis suggests induction of a unique AMP profile with increased susceptibility to these pathogens. During pregnancy, AMP are key immune effectors of the fetal membranes and placenta and are dysregulated in states of intrauterine infection and other complications of pregnancy. Conclusions: At the level of the FRT, AMP serve to inhibit infection by sexually and vertically transmissible as well as by opportunistic bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa and must do so throughout the hormone flux of menses and pregnancy. Guarding the exclusive site of reproduction, AMP modulate the vaginal microbiome of the lower FRT to aid in preventing ascending microbes into the upper FRT. Evolving in parallel with, and in response to, pathogenic insults,AMPare relatively immune to the resistance mechanisms employed by rapidly evolving pathogens and play a key role in barrier function and host defense throughout the FRT.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-377
Number of pages25
JournalHuman Reproduction Update
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • Bacterial vaginosis
  • Epithelial barrier
  • Host defense
  • Reproductive immunology
  • Vaginal microbiome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Reproductive Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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