How Ethiopian highlanders adapted to breathe thin air

Ethiopian highlands

Over millenia, humans have adapted to the high altitude of Ethiopia's highlands. Researchers have now pinpointed one adaptation — lower levels of cardiac signaling protein — that may make the high life possible.

Sightings of the Subtle/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At high altitudes, the reduced oxygen in the air makes some people develop a condition called hypoxia. But the thousands of people who live 3,500 meters above sea level in the Ethiopian highlands don’t seem to get sick. A key genetic adaptation may have helped them live for millenia at high altitudes, researchers report August 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Previously, a search for irregularities in highlanders’ genomes flagged mutations around a gene that builds a signaling protein called endothelin receptor type B, or ERTB. In the new study, mice with lower levels of ERTB still manage to get oxygen to vital organs with help from a trio of other genes that regulate blood pumping and circulation.

The findings could help provide better treatments for hypoxia — whether it’s down at sea level or high up in the hills of Ethiopia. 

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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