- Mammalian alpha-defensins all have a conserved triple-stranded beta-sheet structure that is constrained by an invariant tridisulfide array, and the peptides exert bactericidal effects by permeabilizing the target cell envelope. Curiously, the disordered, disulfide-null variant of mouse alpha-defensin cryptdin-4 (Crp4), termed (6C/A)-Crp4, has bactericidal activity equal to or greater than that of the native peptide, providing a rationale for comparing the mechanisms by which the peptides interact with and disrupt phospholipid vesicles of defined composition. For both live Escherichia coli ML35 cells and model membranes, disordered (6C/A)-Crp4 induced leakage in a manner similar to that of Crp4 but had less overall membrane permeabilizing activity. Crp4 induction of the leakage of the fluorophore from electronegative liposomes was strongly dependent on vesicle lipid charge and composition, and the incorporation of cardiolipin into liposomes of low electronegative charge to mimic bacterial membrane composition conferred sensitivity to Crp4- and (6C/A)-Crp4-mediated vesicle lysis. Membrane perturbation studies using biomimetic lipid/polydiacetylene vesicles showed that Crp4 inserts more pronouncedly into membranes containing a high fraction of electronegative lipids or cardiolipin than (6C/A)-Crp4 does, correlating directly with measurements of induced leakage. Fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments provided evidence that Crp4 translocates across highly charged or cardiolipin-containing membranes, in a process coupled with membrane permeabilization, but (6C/A)-Crp4 did not translocate across lipid bilayers and consistently displayed membrane surface association. Thus, despite the greater in vitro bactericidal activity of (6C/A)-Crp4, native, beta-sheet-containing Crp4 induces membrane permeabilization more effectively than disulfide-null Crp4 by translocating and forming transient membrane defects. (6C/A)-Crp4, on the other hand, appears to induce greater membrane disintegration.