Origin of Tibetans’ high-altitude adaptations found

Studying the DNA of people from Nepal's Thame village (shown), which is at an elevation of 3,800 meters, helped scientists identify the two ancestral gene pools that merged to become part of the genetics of modern-day Tibetans.

Cynthia Beall

A mixture of genes from two ancestral populations gave modern Tibetans their ability to withstand high altitude.

One of the ancestral groups developed a genome similar to the modern Sherpa by migrating to high altitudes about 30,000 years ago. Those people then interbred with another group, which had moved into lower altitudes and had genomes similar to lowlander East Asians.

The genes adapted for high altitude were then passed down over generations to form the population now referred to today as Tibetans, researchers report February 10 in Nature. The results suggest that sharing beneficial genetic mutations and having those genes favored over time is one way for organisms to adapt to new environments.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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