How to thrive in thin air: It’s in the genes

CASE WESTERN (US) — Highlanders in Tibet and Ethiopia are both able to flourish in the low oxygen of high altitudes, but the ability to pass on the trait appears to be linked to different genes.

The adaptation is the ability to maintain a relatively low (for high altitudes) level of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells, at notably high altitudes. Members of ethnic populations who historically live at low altitudes naturally respond to the thin air by increasing hemoglobin levels. The response can help draw oxygen into the body, but increases blood viscosity and the risks for thrombosis, stroke, and difficulties with pregnancies.

Published in the journal PLoS Genetics, the research may also provide insight for managing high-altitude sickness and for treating low blood-oxygen conditions such as asthma, sleep apnea, and heart problems by revealing how populations can live in severe environments.


The duration needed to develop this physiological adaptation remains unclear. Researchers found the adaptation in an ethnic group that has lived high in the mountains of Ethiopia for at least 5,000 years, but not in a group that has lived high in the mountains for 500 years.

In their first comparison, the researchers found that the genes responsible for hemoglobin levels in Tibetans do not influence an ethnic group called the Amhara.

The Amhara have lived more than a mile high in the Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia for 5,000 to 70,000 years. Though the Amhara are located a significant distance from the Tibetans and possess a different variant of the gene, they were found to have the same low levels of hemoglobin.

“All indications are we’re seeing convergent evolution,” says Cynthia Beall, professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University and one of the leaders of the study. Convergent evolution is the term used when two separate populations change biologically in a similar way to adapt to a similar environment, yet use different mechanisms.

“These were two different evolutionary experiments,” Beall says of the mountain dwellers in Tibet and Ethiopia. “On one level—the biological response—they are the same. On another level—the changes in the gene pool—they are different.”

In addition to studying the Amhara, Beall and colleagues looked for changes in physiology and genetics among a related ethnic group, the Oromo, who have lived more than a mile above sea level in the Bale Mountains of southern Ethiopia for 500 years.

They found no long-term adaptation and no genetic changes related to a low-oxygen environment. Instead, they found that the Omoro had high levels of hemoglobin, as would be expected for a lowland population.

Using the same samples collected from the Amhara and Oromo, the researchers are now studying biological similarities between the groups including genes, ventilation, and the influence of vasoconstrictors and vasodilators on blood flow.

They also plan to continue to research and study blood flow, especially through the heart and lungs of the highlanders, and to test the metabolic rate of mitochondria that use oxygen to create the energy on which cells operate.

“We also want to find whether people with the variants for low hemoglobin levels have more children and a higher survival rate,” Beall says. “That’s the evolutionary payoff.”

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Adis Ababa University contributed to the study that was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Source: Case Western Reserve University