When people live at high altitude, where oxygen is limited, their bodies usually produce a higher number of red blood cells. The more red blood cells present, the more oxygen can be lugged around the body… up to a point. This response can cause the blood to become thick and sticky with oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which can increase the risk of heart failure. A study has found that highland inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau (pictured) possess a unique genetic variant that enables them to survive in the oxygen-thin air. The researchers believe that this EGLN1 gene, which entered the Tibetan population 8,000 years ago, serves to protect highland Tibetans against an over-eager response to low oxygen levels. Because oxygen plays a central role in disease, a deep understanding of how high altitude adaptations work may lead to novel treatments for various diseases, including cancer.
Written by Nick Kennedy
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.