Evidence Of Malaria Parasite Found In The Skeletons From Roman Empire

Posted: Dec 7 2016, 3:04am CST | by , Updated: Dec 7 2016, 3:12am CST, in News | Latest Science News

 

Evidence of Malaria Parasite Found in the Skeletons from Roman Empire
2,0000 years old skeletal remains of an individual. Credit: Luca Bondioli, Pigorini Museum)
 

New research suggests that malaria was prevalent as far back as 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome

Researchers have found the first genetic evidence for the existence of malaria in Roman Empire, reflecting the fact that malaria epidemic was affecting communities as far back as 2,000 years ago.

By analyzing DNA of 2,000 year old human remains from Imperial-period Italian cemeteries, researchers have identified malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. It’s the same one that even prevails today and kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.

“There is extensive written evidence describing fevers that sound like malaria in ancient Greece and Rome, but the specific malaria species responsible is unknown,” said study co-author Stephanie Marciniak from  Pennsylvania State University.

“Our data confirm that the species was likely Plasmodium falciparum, and that it affected people in different ecological and cultural environments. These results open up new questions to explore, particularly how widespread this parasite was, and what burden it placed upon communities in Imperial Roman Italy.”

The DNA samples came from the bodies of 58 adults and 10 children buried in three different cemeteries in Italian peninsula while the evidence of malaria parasite was recovered in the teeth of two individuals. The skeletons were obtained from two different cemeteries at two different locations, suggesting that malaria was not confined to a specific place. It was infecting people from different geographical locations across Roman Empire.

“Malaria was indeed present not only along the coast of Italy, and thus blamed on immigrants arriving through the port cities from Africa, but deep inland at rural settings as well. So it must have been a constant scourge upon the people and ultimately the empire.” Evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar from McMaster University told CNN.

While DNA extraction works as a starting point for further investigation, it becomes difficult to extract especially because of the nature of the disease. Parasites primarily dwell within blood stream and organs like liver and spleen which decompose and disappear over time, in this instance, over the course of 2,000 years. Still, researchers were able to extract and identify malaria parasite in the skeletal remains.

Although malaria is for the moment limited to just tropical countries, it is still one of the most devastating infectious diseases and continues to threaten nearly half of the world's population. According to WHO, there were roughly 214 million malaria cases and an estimated 438 000 malaria deaths in 2015. 

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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