Oldest Malarial Mummies Shed Light on Disease Evolution

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2008

The oldest known cases of malaria have been discovered in two 3,500-year-old Egyptian mummies, scientists announced.

Researchers in Germany studied bone tissue samples from more than 90 mummies found in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, now called Luxor.

Two adult mummies from separate tombs had tissues containing ancient DNA from a parasite known to cause malaria, the researchers announced at a conference last week.

In addition, a separate team at University College London recently found that a pair of 9,000-year-old skeletons—a woman and a baby—discovered off the coast of Israel were infected with the oldest known cases of tuberculosis in modern humans.

Both finds contribute to the burgeoning field of paleopathology, or the study of ancient diseases.

Examining ancient DNA for clues about how and why disease-causing organisms evolve and mutate could have a tremendous impact on modern medicine.

"This will help us understand how these deadly diseases were able to infect humans," said Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at the Academic Teaching Hospital München-Bogenhausen who found the mummies' malaria.

"Knowing this may help us to find strategies to prevent the introduction of new infectious diseases or the re-emergence of ancient ones."

Combating Drug Resistance

Even with today's medical advances, millions of people die each year from malaria, for which there is no effective vaccine.

Tuberculosis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection, has strains that have grown resistant to antibiotics and other treatments.

(Test your knowledge of illnesses with our infectious diseases quiz.)

Continued on Next Page >>


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