A Yale University scientist has developed a promising new method to identify malaria in the bone marrow of ancient human remains. It is the first time researchers have been able to establish a diagnostic, human skeletal profile for the disease, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and continues to infect millions of people a year.

Plasmodium falciparum/CDC
Plasmodium falciparum/CDC

The new process may allow scientists to track the spread of malaria back to its first appearance in human populations. The method, which works effectively on bones resistant to previous forms of testing, also may be applicable to other diseases.

“The data set we build with this will be revolutionary for establishing the epidemiological curve for malaria in ancient societies,” said Jamie Inwood, a Yale graduate student in archaeology who led the research team. “By understanding how this parasite reacted to societal shifts in the past, we can aid in predicting its future behavior. We can understand the way it has evolved.”

Inwood and her colleagues spent several years identifying chemical and spectral indicators for malaria in archaeological bones. Specifically, they looked for the polymer hemozoin, which is produced by the parasite that causes malaria.

The technique is more effective than other methods of analysis, such as pathogen aDNA extraction, which often produce inconclusive results and are difficult to conduct when poor preservation conditions are a factor.

Read the entire Yale news release HERE