Andean, Tibetan, and Ethiopian patterns of adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia

Integr Comp Biol. 2006 Feb;46(1):18-24. doi: 10.1093/icb/icj004. Epub 2006 Jan 6.


Research on humans at high-altitudes contributes to understanding the processes of human adaptation to the environment and evolution. The unique stress at high altitude is hypobaric hypoxia caused by the fall in barometric pressure with increasing altitude and the consequently fewer oxygen molecules in a breath of air, as compared with sea level. The natural experiment of human colonization of high-altitude plateaus on three continents has resulted in two-perhaps three-quantitatively different arterial-oxygen-content phenotypes among indigenous Andean, Tibetan and Ethiopian high-altitude populations. This paper illustrates these contrasting phenotypes by presenting evidence for higher hemoglobin concentration and percent of oxygen saturation of hemoglobin among Andean highlanders as compared with Tibetans at the same altitude and evidence that Ethiopian highlanders do not differ from sea-level in these two traits. Evolutionary processes may have acted differently on the colonizing populations to cause the different patterns of adaptation. Hemoglobin concentration has significant heritability in Andean and Tibetan samples. Oxygen saturation has no heritability in the Andean sample, but does among Tibetans where an autosomal dominant major gene for higher oxygen saturation has been detected. Women estimated with high probability to have high oxygen saturation genotypes have more surviving children than women estimated with high probability to have the low oxygen saturation genotype. These findings suggest the hypothesis that ongoing natural selection is increasing the frequency of the high saturation allele at this major gene locus.