Signs of malaria have been found in the skeleton of a child buried in a Roman cemetery.

For a complete account of this story see:
Sallares,R. and Gomzi,S. Biomolecular archaeology of malaria. Ancient Biomolecules 3, 195-213 (2001)
Ancient DNA research is a new way of investigating the history of disease
Dr Robert Sallares, of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist), UK, has analysed DNA extracted from an infant's bones. This DNA revealed signs of infection with the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. The child was buried at a site north of Rome more than 1,500 years ago. British researchers say it is the earliest genetic evidence that Malaria tropica plagued the classical civilisations of Rome and Greece.

The skeleton of an infant, found in an amphora at Lugnano.

The DNA evidence provides support for the theory that a lethal outbreak of malaria in AD 450 contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Roman fever

The Ancient Roman Forum in Rome, Italy

Archaeological and ancient historians have argued for some time about whether malaria was a significant factor in the classical civilisations of Rome and Greece. Communities in Greece and Rome suddenly died out. There's argument over whether some of these communities were wiped out by malaria. Genetic analysis had documented cases of malaria in medieval times but the present study is believed to be the first DNA evidence for malaria as far back in history as late Roman times. The name malaria is derived from the Italian, (mal-aria) or "bad air". It was also known as Roman fever. It is a very old disease - indeed, prehistoric man is thought to have suffered from malaria.

Details of the analysis

P.falciparum infects not only red blood cells but also their precursurs, the reticulocytes, and the cells of the erythropoietic system. This explains why in bones from infected individuals P.falciparum DNA can be expected to be detected. By using two P. falciparum 18S rRNA specific oligonucleotides and PCR, Sollares and Gomzi were able to amplifiy two stretches of 89 nucleotides of DNA from the infants' bones found in Italy from about 450 AD, which differed by only two nucleotides. The two DNA fragments (GenBank accession AJ426488 and AJ426487) turned out to be respectively 98% and 100% identical to a fragment of 18S rRNA of P. falciparum, present in the GenBank nucleic acid database, demonstrating that falciparum malaria was prevalent in Italy in these days.

Amplified DNA ( AJ426488)
agaaataaca atacaatatc gaaaaatgat tttgtaattg gaatgatagg aatttacaag gttcctagag aaaccattgg agggcaagt

Amplified DNA AJ426487
agaaataaca atacaatatc gaaaaatgat tttgtaattg gaatgatagg aattgacaag gttcctagag aaacaattgg agggcaagt

Check here your self whether or not these PCR fragments are derived from a P. falciparum 18S rRNA.

Copy the above DNA fragment(s) to the clipboard and paste them into the submission window of the BLASTN search box of the GenBank nucleic acid database at NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information). Do not change any of the default settings and carry out a BLAST search against the entire nucleotide sequence database. After submission click on the "Format" button and wait. The result of the BLAST search will arrive on your computer within seconds or minutes depending on the load on the server. You'll see that of the four first hits, two represent the ancient sequences used by Dr. Sollares and which in the mean time have been submitted to the GenBank database, while the third (M19173) represents one of the two P.falciparum 18S ribosomal RNA genes. A fourth hit represents a partial chromosomal sequence containing the 18S rDNA gene as well.