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
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