Two routes to functional adaptation: Tibetan and Andean high-altitude natives

Om hvordan pusten endres når man bor i høyland. Nevner mye om oksygentilgjengelighet, oksygenkaskade, hypoxi, kapillærer, mitokondrier, m.m., og om hvorfor vi har lite oksygen i mitokondriene. Studier undersøker spesifikt om at tibetanere har endrede gener siden de med gener som er tilpasset lave oksygennivåer har mindre fysiologisk stress og dermed større sjangse for barn som overlever, og hvilke forkjeller i hypoxi-tilpasning som har sjedd i de to befolkningene.

Ny, som må gjennomgåes:

These reveal generally more genetic variance in the Tibetan population and more potential for natural selection. There is evidence that natural selection is ongoing in the Tibetan population, where women estimated to have genotypes for high oxygen saturation of hemoglobin (and less physiological stress) have higher offspring survival.

At 4,000-m elevation, every breath of air contains only ≈60% of the oxygen molecules in the same breath at sea level. This is a constant feature of the ambient environment to which every person at a given altitude is inexorably exposed. Less oxygen in inspired air results in less oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream to be carried to the cells for oxygen-requiring energy-producing metabolism in the mitochondria.

Humans do not store oxygen, because it reacts so rapidly and destructively with other molecules. Therefore, oxygen must be supplied, without interruption, to the mitochondria and to the ≥1,000 oxygen-requiring enzymatic reactions in various cells and tissues (4).

Fig. 1. Ambient oxygen levels, measured by the partial pressure of oxygen (solid line) or as a percent of sea-level values (dashed line), decrease with increasing altitude, a situation called high-altitude or hypobaric hypoxia. The atmosphere contains ≈21% oxygen at all altitudes.

The oxygen level is near zero in human mitochondria at all altitudes (5). This condition is described as “primitive,” because it has changed little for the past 2.5 billion years despite wide swings in the amount of atmospheric oxygen (at times it has been 10,000-fold lower; refs. 6 and 7) and “protective” in the sense that it circumvents potentially damaging reactions of oxygen with other molecules (8).

Fig. 2. The oxygen transport cascade at sea level (solid line) and at the high altitude of 4,540 m (dashed line) illustrates the oxygen levels at the major stages of oxygen delivery and suggests potential points of functional adaptation (data from ref. 60).

Potential and Actual Points of Adaptation to Hypoxia

Energy Production.

Lowlanders traveling to high altitude display homeostatic responses to the acute severe hypoxia. The responses are energetically costly, as indicated by an increase in basal metabolic rate (BMR; the minimum amount of energy needed to maintain life with processes such as regulating body temperature, heart rate, and breathing). BMR is increased by ≈17–27% for the first few weeks upon exposure to high altitude and gradually returns toward sea-level baseline (9). In other words, for acutely exposed lowlanders, the fundamental physiological processes required to sustain life at high altitude require more oxygen despite lower oxygen availability.

In contrast to acutely exposed lowlanders and despite the equally low level of oxygen pressure in the air and lungs, both Andean and Tibetan highlanders display the standard low-altitude range of oxygen delivery from minimal to maximal. Both populations have the normal basal metabolic rate expected for their age, sex, and body weight (1416), implying that their functional adaptations do not entail increased basal oxygen requirements. Furthermore, Andean and Tibetan highlanders have maximal oxygen uptake expected for their level of physical training (12, 13, 17).


One potential point of adaptation in oxygen delivery is ventilation, which, if raised, could move a larger overall volume of air and achieve a higher level of oxygen in the alveolar air (Fig. 2) and diffusion of more oxygen. An immediate increase in ventilation is perhaps the most important response of lowlanders acutely exposed to high altitude, although it is not sustained indefinitely and is not found among members of low-altitude populations born and raised at high altitude, such as Europeans or Chinese (3, 18).

For example, a comparative analysis summarizing the results of 28 samples of Tibetan and Andean high-altitude natives at an average altitude of ≈3,900 m reported an estimated resting ventilation of 15.0 liters/min among the Tibetan samples as compared with 10.5 liters/min among the Andean samples (19).

Fig. 3 illustrates the higher resting ventilation of Tibetans as compared with Andean highlanders evaluated using the same protocol at ≈4,000 m. The mean resting ventilation for Tibetans was >1 SD higher than the mean of the Andean highlanders (20).

Oxygen in the Bloodstream.

The higher ventilation levels among Tibetans that move more oxygen through the lungs, along with the higher HVRs that respond more vigorously to fluctuations in oxygen levels, might be expected to result in more oxygen in the bloodstream. However, the level of oxygen in the arterial blood (Fig. 2) of a sample of Tibetans at ≈3,700 m was lower than that of a sample of Andean high-altitude natives at the same altitude (54 as compared with 57 mmHg; 1 mmHg = 133 Pa) (24, 25). In addition, hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood, is less saturated with oxygen among Tibetans than among their Andean counterparts (26, 27). Fig. 3 illustrates the lower percent of oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in a sample of Tibetans at ≈4,000 m. The increased breathing of Tibetans does not deliver more oxygen to the hemoglobin in the arteries.

Fig. 3 illustrates the markedly lower hemoglobin concentrations in a sample of Tibetan men and women as compared with their Andean counterparts at ≈4,000 m. [The average hemoglobin concentrations were 15.6 and 19.2 g/dl for Tibetan and Andean men, respectively, and 14.2 and 17.8 g/dl for women (28).] Hemoglobin concentration is influenced by many factors, including erythropoietin, a protein that causes differentiation of the precursors that will become hemoglobin-containing red blood cells. Tibetans have slightly lower erythropoietin concentrations than Andean highlanders at the same altitude (25). When matched for volume of red blood cells, a procedure that would effectively compare the highest Tibetan and the lowest Andean values, Andean highlanders have much higher erythropoietin levels, which implies that some sensor is responding as if the stress were more severe, even though the samples were collected at the same altitude of ≈3,700 m.

Andean highlanders have overcompensated for ambient hypoxia according to this measure, whereas Tibetan highlanders have undercompensated. Indeed, Tibetans are profoundly hypoxic and must be engaging other mechanisms or adapting at different points in the oxygen transport cascade to sustain normal aerobic metabolism.

Fig. 4. The calculated arterial oxygen content of Tibetan men and women is profoundly lower than their Andean counterparts measured at ≈4,000 m (data from ref. 62), whereas the exhaled NO concentration is markedly higher (recalculated from data reported in ref. 34).

Blood Flow and Oxygen Diffusion.

Other potential points of functional adaptation include the rate of flow of oxygen-carrying blood to tissues and the rate of oxygen diffusion from the bloodstream into cells.

Because blood flow is a function of the diameter of blood vessels, dilating factors could, in principle, improve the rate of oxygen delivery. Sea-level populations respond to high-altitude hypoxia by narrowing the blood vessels in their lungs, the first point of contact with the circulation. Known as hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, that reflex evolved at sea level to direct blood away from temporarily poorly oxygenated toward better oxygenated parts of the lung. High-altitude hypoxia causes poor oxygenation of the entire lung and general constriction of blood vessels to the degree that it raises pulmonary blood pressure, often to hypertensive levels (3, 29).

In contrast, most Tibetans do not have hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction or pulmonary hypertension. This is indicated by essentially normal pulmonary blood flow, as measured by normal or only minimally elevated pulmonary artery pressure (29, 30).

a mean pulmonary artery pressure of 31 mmHg for the Tibetan 28% lower than the mean of 43 mmHg for the Andean (35 mmHg is often considered the upper end of the normal sea-level range) (30, 31). Andean highlanders are consistently reported to have pulmonary hypertension (29). Thus, pulmonary blood flow is another element of oxygen delivery for which Tibetans differ from Andean highlanders in the direction of greater departure from the ancestral response to acute hypoxia.

A probable reason for the normal pulmonary artery pressure among Tibetans is high levels of the vasodilator nitric oxide (NO) gas synthesized in the lining of the blood vessels. Low-altitude populations acutely exposed to high-altitude down-regulate NO synthesis, a response thought to contribute to hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction (32, 33). In contrast, NO is substantially elevated in the lungs of Tibetan as compared with Andean highlanders and lowlanders at sea level (Fig. 4) (34). Among Tibetans, higher exhaled NO is associated with higher blood flow through the lungs (30).

Several other lines of evidence highlight the importance of high blood flow for Tibetans. These include greater increase in blood flow after temporary occlusion (35) and higher blood flow to the brain during exercise (36) as compared with lowlanders.

Generally, Tibetans appear to have relatively high blood flow that may contribute significantly to offsetting their low arterial oxygen content.

A denser capillary network could potentially improve perfusion and oxygen delivery, because each capillary would supply a smaller area of tissue, and oxygen would diffuse a shorter distance. Tibetans (the study sample were Sherpas, an ethnic group that emigrated from Tibet to Nepal ≈500 years ago) who are born and raised at high altitude have higher capillary density in muscles as compared with Andean high-altitude natives, Tibetans born and raised at low altitude, or lowlanders (Fig. 5) (40).

Fig. 5. High-altitude native Tibetans have higher capillary density than their Andean counterparts or populations at low altitude; Tibetan and Andean highlanders both have lower mitochondrial volume than low-altitude populations (data from refs. 40, 44, 63, and64).

The last potential point of adaptation is at the level of the mitochondrion itself. Acutely exposed lowlanders lose mitochondria in leg muscles during the first 3 weeks at altitude. Similarly, both Tibetan (Sherpas) and Andean high-altitude natives have a lower mitochondrial volume in leg muscle tissue than sea-level natives at sea level (Fig. 5) (40).

Among Tibetans, a smaller mitochondrial volume somehow supports a relatively larger oxygen consumption, perhaps by higher metabolic efficiency (12, 43, 44).

Another candidate gene is the transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF1) often called the “master regulator” of oxygen homeostasis, because it induces >70 genes that respond to hypoxia (5658). An investigation of polymorphisms in the HIF1A gene of Tibetans (Sherpas) found a dinucleotide repeat in 20 Tibetans that was not found in 30 Japanese lowlander controls (59).

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