The Origin of Malaria: Discovered

09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, me and my colleagues from Cameroon, Germany and the United States announced our discovery of the origin of malaria.

Malaria, a tiny parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, kills over a million people each year and devastates the economies of the countries it hits. And while we have learned a great deal about malaria since the French physician Laveran first discovered the parasite in 1880, a number of mysteries remain.

Among the most prominent mysteries is perhaps the most basic: where did this parasite come from?

Popular and scientific wisdom holds that the major human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, has been with us since the dawn of humanity. But by studying closely related malaria parasites in African chimpanzees we discovered that in fact malaria jumped to us from chimpanzees, presumably through the bites of mosquitoes.

In addition to telling us where our own malaria comes from, the newly identified malaria parasites we've identified in chimpanzees will help us to understand the biology of the parasite, and might help us in another illusive mystery of malaria: how can we create a vaccine against it?

Dr. Nathan Wolfe is the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University and Director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative.