Plasmodium falciparum malaria in 1 st –2 nd century CE southern Italy
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The historical record attests to the devastation malaria exacted on ancient civilizations, particularly the Roman Empire . However, evidence for the presence of malaria during the Imperial period in Italy (1st-5th century CE) is based on indirect sources, such as historical, epigraphic, or skeletal evidence. Although these sources are crucial for revealing the context of this disease, they cannot establish the causative species of Plasmodium. Importantly, definitive evidence for the presence of malaria is now possible through the implementation of ancient DNA technology. As malaria is presumed to have been at its zenith during the Imperial period , we selected first or second molars from 58 adults from three cemeteries from this time: Isola Sacra (associated with Portus Romae, 1st-3rd century CE), Velia (1st-2nd century CE), and Vagnari (1st-4th century CE). We performed hybridization capture using baits designed from the mitochondrial (mtDNA) genomes of Plasmodium spp. on a prioritized subset of 11 adults (informed by metagenomic sequencing). The mtDNA sequences generated provided compelling phylogenetic evidence for the presence of P. falciparum in two individuals. This is the first genomic data directly implicating P. falciparum in Imperial period southern Italy in adults.
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