Evidence of Malaria Epidemics in Ancient Rome

NEW YORK-Technology, patience, and faith have brought several scientists the results they have been searching for.

A new procedure has extracted DNA from the body of a 3-year-old child who died around 450 in Rome. The DNA shows the child probably died from malarial fever-a result British and American researchers were excited to get.

Traces of malaria had never before been identified definitively in such long-buried skeletons.

Researchers at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in England isolated minute samples of DNA from leg bones of a 3-year-old child. The DNA showed 98% identical to that in people infected with Plasmodium falciparum the most virulent of human malarial species.

David Soren, PhD, a classical archaeologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, lead in international team to excavate the children's cemetery in the early 1990s. They discovered more than 50 small skeletons, most found in earthen jars. Many were the remains of stillbirths and early infant deaths. The falciparum parasite is known to cause miscarriage and infant death.

A few older skeletons had pitted cranium surfaces, which can be caused by an infectious disease like malaria.

With this evidence, Soren hypothesized that malaria epidemics might have had lead Rome in ruin. Scientists at the University of Rome found evidence should the falciparum malaria came from Africa, underwent mutations in Sardinia and was introduced into the marshy, mosquito-infested Tiber River basin by the fifth century.

Scientists are hailing the technology that lead to the discovery as remarkable. Pieces of leg bone were ground into powder. Then silica was added, which binds to DNA. The DNA was then isolated by a laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction.

By amplifying any residual DNA in a sample, the technique enables scientists to detect and decode the imprint of malaria on human genes.

This process took several months and was repeated to prove accuracy.

The discovery is the earliest genetic evidence of malaria infection to be identified.

Information from www.nytimes.com