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In a new Oxford Science Blog, George Busby (Big Data Institute) discusses his team's research into human genetic resistance to malaria and humanity's age-old struggle against the disease.

Humans have long been thwarted by ‘the fever’. References to malaria’s infamous febricity are found across antiquity, from writings by the four thousand-year-old Vedic sages of ancient India to the Greek physician Hippocrates. But the disease, caused by a group of parasites belonging to the Plasmodium genus, has troubled our ancestors and close relatives for much longer. A range of malaria species infect apes, monkeys and birds across the tropical world and we now know that about 50,000 years ago the ancestors of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for most of the current human burden of the disease, transformed from infecting gorillas to parasites that can infect us.

This means that throughout our history, wherever the ecological conditions have been able to support the mosquitoes that transmit the disease (including the marshes of Kent well into the 19th Century) we’ve been accompanied by the blood parasite which many believe to be one of the largest killers of people in human history. Reports of malaria killing half of the people who have ever lived are likely to be wide of the mark, however.

Given this shared history, you might expect humans to have evolved ways to neutralise the devastating impact of malaria. In evolutionary terms, the stakes are high - falciparum malaria is most deadly in young children - so there is a clear advantage to adapting to beat the parasite. And, because evolution works with new mutations in DNA that cause genes to work in new and different ways, adaptations that gave our ancestors one up against the parasites should be found across the human genome.

Read more (Oxford Science Blog)