Why Sherpas Excel at Altitude

New gene study has the answer

Feb 10, 2014
Outside Magazine

A new Sherpa gene study explains high-altitude adaptation.   

There’s a reason why Sherpas have excelled at carrying western explorers up the forbidding peaks of Everest for more than a century, and it has to do with genetics.     

A new study found that Tibetans—known for their strength at high altitude—inherited genes from two ancestral pools. One group of ancestors migrated early to high altitudes and started adapting to the thin air about 30,000 years ago.

These genetically adapted super humans then started having babies with another group of (relative) newcomers to the high country. Their love child? Tibetans, who tend to thrive at elevations above 13,000 feet.

"This is a new tool we can use to identify advantageous alleles [alternative form of a gene] in Tibetans and other populations in the world that experienced this type of admixture and selection," says Anna Di Rienzo, professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago and corresponding author of the study.

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