The secret of Tibetan and Sherpa adaptation to hypoxia is in their genomes
How can populations living on the Tibetan Plateau survive the extreme weather conditions and reduced oxygen availability? An answer comes from a study led by a research team at University of Bologna, recently published in Genome Biology and Evolution.
It is extremely difficult to live at the altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau: at 4,000 metres above sea level, our body can use more or less half of the amount of oxygen available at low altitude, making it difficult even to keep the normal vital functions active.
The research analyzed the DNA of Sherpa and Tibetan populations living in cold temperatures, with few natural resources, exposed to high UV radiation and reduced oxygen availability, and identified combinations of genetic variants which have made blood vessels more efficient, thus improving blood circulation and tissue blood perfusion.
“The populations living on the Tibetan Plateau and the Sherpa communities living in the high-altitude valleys on the Nepalese side of the Himalayas are one of the most emblematic examples of how human populations have been able to adapt to very different environments”, explained Marco Sazzini, researcher at the University of Bologna, who led the study.
The results obtained could prove useful in the biomedical field, allowing researchers to identify therapies for diseases in which hypoxia is a characteristic of the affected tissues.
To carry out the study, the team combined traditional statistical techniques with the analysis of all gene networks existing in the human genetic heritage: a new method of analysis that can be replicated by expanding the knowledge on human evolutionary mechanisms.