Complement peptides C3a, C4a, and C5a are important components of innate immunity in vertebrates. Although they diverged from a common ancestor, only C3a and C4a can act as antibacterial peptides in Homo sapiens, suggesting that C5a has evolved into a purely chemotactic molecule; however, the antibacterial properties of C3a, C4a, and C5a across vertebrates still require elucidation. In this article, we show that, unlike those in H. sapiens, Mus musculus C3a, C4a, and C5a all possess antibacterial activities, implying that the antibacterial properties of C3a, C4a, and C5a have evolved divergently in vertebrates. The extremely different net charge, a key factor determining the antibacterial activities of cationic antimicrobial peptides, of vertebrate C3a, C4a, and C5a supports this speculation. Moreover, the antibacterial activity of overlapping peptides covering vertebrate C3a, C4a, and C5a further strongly supports the speculation, because their activity is positively correlated with the net charge of source molecules. Notably, the structures of C3a, C4a, and C5a are conserved in vertebrates, and the inactive overlapping peptides can become antibacterial peptides if mutated to possess enough net positive charges, indicating that net charge is the only factor determining the antibacterial properties of vertebrate C3a, C4a, and C5a. More importantly, many vertebrate C3a-, C4a-, and C5a-derived peptides possess high antibacterial activities yet exhibit no hemolytic activities, suggesting the application potential in anti-infective therapy. Taken together, our findings reveal that vertebrate C3a, C4a, and C5a are all sources of antibacterial peptides that will facilitate the design of excellent peptide antibiotics.

This work was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2018YFD0900505), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31602184), the Laboratory of Lingnan Modern Agriculture Project (NT2021008), and the Open Project of Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Biology and Epidemiology for Aquatic Economic Animals (PBEA2021ZD02).

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