Open Access Open Badges Research

Bacterial feeding, Leishmania infection and distinct infection routes induce differential defensin expression in Lutzomyia longipalpis

Erich L Telleria134, Maurício R Viana Sant’Anna2, Mohammad O Alkurbi3, André N Pitaluga1, Rod J Dillon2 and Yara M Traub-Csekö1*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratório de Biologia Molecular de Parasitos e Vetores, Instituto Oswaldo Cruz-Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil

2 School of Health and Medicine, Lancaster University, Lancaster, England, UK

3 Vector Group, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Liverpool, England, UK

4 Present address: Yale School of Public Health - LEPH, New Haven, CT, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

Parasites & Vectors 2013, 6:12  doi:10.1186/1756-3305-6-12

Published: 11 January 2013



Phlebotomine insects harbor bacterial, viral and parasitic pathogens that can cause diseases of public health importance. Lutzomyia longipalpis is the main vector of visceral leishmaniasis in the New World. Insects can mount a powerful innate immune response to pathogens. Defensin peptides take part in this response and are known to be active against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, and some parasites. We studied the expression of a defensin gene from Lutzomyia longipalpis to understand its role in sand fly immune response.


We identified, sequenced and evaluated the expression of a L. longipalpis defensin gene by semi-quantitative RT-PCR. The gene sequence was compared to other vectors defensins and expression was determined along developmental stages and after exposure of adult female L. longipalpis to bacteria and Leishmania.


Phylogenetic analysis showed that the L. longipalpis defensin is closely related to a defensin from the Old World sand fly Phlebotomus duboscqi. Expression was high in late L4 larvae and pupae in comparison to early larval stages and newly emerged flies. Defensin expression was modulated by oral infection with bacteria. The Gram-positive Micrococcus luteus induced early high defensin expression, whilst the Gram-negative entomopathogenic Serratia marcescens induced a later response. Bacterial injection also induced defensin expression in adult insects. Female sand flies infected orally with Leishmania mexicana showed no significant difference in defensin expression compared to blood fed insects apart from a lower defensin expression 5 days post Leishmania infection. When Leishmania was introduced into the hemolymph by injection there was no induction of defensin expression until 72 h later.


Our results suggest that L. longipalpis modulates defensin expression upon bacterial and Leishmania infection, with patterns of expression that are distinct among bacterial species and routes of infection.

Lutzomyia longipalpis; Defensin; Leishmania; Bacteria