A chimpanzee sits in his enclosure in Berlin Zoo, June 9, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Malaria may have jumped to humans from chimpanzees much as AIDS did, U.S. researchers reported on Monday in a study they hope could help in developing a vaccine against the infection.

They found evidence the parasite that causes most cases of malaria is a close genetic relative of a parasite found in chimpanzees. Genetic analysis suggests the human parasite is a direct descendant of the chimp parasite, they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum may have been transmitted to human beings as recently as 10,000 years ago, Francisco Ayala of the University of California Irvine and colleagues said.

When malaria transferred to humans, it became very severe very quickly, Ayala said in a statement.

The disease in humans has become resistant to many drugs. It's my hope that our discovery will bring us closer to making a vaccine.

Malaria kills an estimated 1 million people a year, mostly children, according to the World Health Organization. The mosquito-borne parasite causes severe disease in more than 300 million every year.

Ayala's team sampled blood samples from 94 chimpanzees in Cameroon and Ivory Coast to find the apes' version of the parasite.

The closest known relative of P. falciparum is a chimpanzee parasite, Plasmodium reichenowi, they wrote. They found eight samples of P. reichenowi.

Their genetic testing of the samples showed all known P. falciparum parasites originated from P. reichenowi.

Researchers are trying to make a vaccine against malaria but are having difficulty. Understanding how it became adapted to humans could help in this work.

The finding is the latest to show that some of humanity's worst diseases originated in animals. AIDS came from chimpanzees -- and French researchers reported on Sunday that they found a Cameroonian woman had been infected with an HIV virus that apparently came from gorillas.

Swine flu, H5N1 avian influenza and in fact all influenza viruses are believed to have originated in animals. Other animal-to-human infections include severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed 800 people in 2003-2004, Ebola and Marburg viruses, and plague.