High-altitude respiration of birds. Structural adaptations in the major and minor hemoglobin components of adult Rüppell's Griffon (Gyps rueppellii, Aegypiinae): a new molecular pattern for hypoxic tolerance

Biol Chem Hoppe Seyler. 1988 Apr;369(4):217-32. doi: 10.1515/bchm3.1988.369.1.217.


The primary structures of the hemoglobins Hb A, Hb A', Hb D and Hb D' of Rüppell's Griffon (Gyps rueppellii), which can fly as high as 11,300 m, are presented. The globin chains were separated on CM-Cellulose in 8M urea buffers, the four hemoglobin components by FPLC in phosphate buffers. The amino-acid sequences of five globin chains were established by automatic Edman degradation of the globin chains and of the tryptic peptides in liquid-phase and gas-phase sequenators. The sequences are compared with those of other Falconiformes. A new molecular pattern for survival at extreme altitudes is presented. For the first time four hemoglobins are found in blood of a bird; they show identical beta-chains and differ in the alpha A- and alpha D-chains by only one replacement. These four hemoglobins cause a gradient in oxygen affinities. The two main components Hb A and Hb A' differ at position alpha 34 Thr/Ile. In case of Ile as found in Hb A' an alpha 1 beta 1-interface is interrupted raising oxygen affinity compared to Hb A. In addition the hemoglobins of the A- and D-groups differ at position alpha 38 Pro or Gln/Thr (alpha 1 beta 2-interface). Expression of Gln in Hb D/D' raises the oxygen affinity of these components compared to Hb A/A' by destabilization of the deoxy-structure. The physiological advantage lies in the functional interplay of four hemoglobin components. Three levels of affinity are predicted: low affinity Hb A, Hb A' of intermediate affinity, and high affinity Hb D/D'. This cascade tallies exactly with oxygen affinities measured in the isolated components and predicts oxygen transport by the composite hemoglobins over an extended range of oxygen affinities. It is contended that the mechanisms of duplication of the alpha-genome (creating four hemoglobins) and of nucleotide replacements (creating different functional properties) are responsible for this remarkable hypoxic tolerance to 11,300 m. Based on this pattern the hypoxic tolerances of other vultures are predicted.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Altitude
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Birds / blood*
  • Globins / isolation & purification
  • Hemoglobins* / physiology
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptide Fragments / analysis
  • Protein Conformation
  • Trypsin


  • Hemoglobins
  • Peptide Fragments
  • Globins
  • Trypsin