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Tibetans live high life thanks to extinct human relatives

Modern people’s DNA adaptation to altitude passed down from ancient Denisovans

1:43pm, July 2, 2014

THE HIGH LIFE  The Tibetan plateau, shown outside the town of Aba, is high, cold and has little oxygen. Scientists now say a genetic variant that helped Tibetans adapt to life on the high-altitude steppe came from extinct people known as Denisovans.

Tibetans inherited a genetic adaptation to high altitudes from an extinct group of human relatives called Denisovans, a new study finds.

Researchers have known for years that Tibetans carry a genetic variant in the EPAS1 gene that allows them to survive at extreme altitudes where oxygen is scarce. But how that variant arose has been mysterious. Now researchers report July 2 in Nature that the high-altitude version of EPAS1 almost certainly came from Denisovans or from a related group of extinct humans.

The case is the most compelling yet that humans picked up helpful genetic variants through interbreeding with hominids that have since gone extinct, says Anna Di Rienzo, a human population geneticist at the University of Chicago, who was not involved with the research. Human evolution probably contains many other examples of people inheriting advantageous mutations by interbreeding with groups that have already adapted to the environment, she

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