MtDNA analysis reveals enriched pathogenic mutations in Tibetan highlanders

Sci Rep. 2016 Aug 8;6:31083. doi: 10.1038/srep31083.


Tibetan highlanders, including Tibetans, Monpas, Lhobas, Dengs and Sherpas, are considered highly adaptive to severe hypoxic environments. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) might be important in hypoxia adaptation given its role in coding core subunits of oxidative phosphorylation. In this study, we employed 549 complete highlander mtDNA sequences (including 432 random samples) to obtain a comprehensive view of highlander mtDNA profile. In the phylogeny of a total of 36,914 sequences, we identified 21 major haplogroups representing founding events of highlanders, most of which were coalesced in 10 kya. Through founder analysis, we proposed a three-phase model of colonizing the plateau, i.e., pre-LGM Time (30 kya, 4.68%), post-LGM Paleolithic Time (16.8 kya, 29.31%) and Neolithic Time (after 8 kya, 66.01% in total). We observed that pathogenic mutations occurred far more frequently in 22 highlander-specific lineages (five lineages carrying two pathogenic mutations and six carrying one) than in the 6,857 haplogroups of all the 36,914 sequences (P = 4.87 × 10(-8)). Furthermore, the number of possible pathogenic mutations carried by highlanders (in average 3.18 ± 1.27) were significantly higher than that in controls (2.82 ± 1.40) (P = 1.89 × 10(-4)). Considering that function-altering and pathogenic mutations are enriched in highlanders, we therefore hypothesize that they may have played a role in hypoxia adaptation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Asians / genetics
  • DNA Mutational Analysis
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Founder Effect
  • Genetic Variation
  • Haplotypes
  • Human Migration
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Phylogeny
  • Tibet


  • DNA, Mitochondrial