Tibetans thrive in the thin air on the Tibetan Plateau, an environment where others struggle to survive, situated at an average elevation of 14,800 feet.
A study led by University of Utah scientists is the first to find a genetic cause for the adaptation - a single DNA base pair change that dates back 8,000 years - and demonstrate how it contributes to the Tibetans' ability to live in low oxygen conditions. The study appears online in the journal Nature Genetics
on Aug. 17, 2014.
"These findings help us understand the unique aspects of Tibetan adaptation to high altitudes, and to better understand human evolution," said Josef Prchal, M.D., senior author and University of Utah professor of internal medicine. The story behind the discovery is equally about cultural diplomacy as it is scientific advancement.
Prchal traveled several times to Asia to meet with Chinese officials, and representatives of exiled Tibetans in India, to obtain permissions to recruit subjects for the study. But he quickly learned that without the trust of Tibetans, his efforts were futile. Wary of foreigners, they refused to donate blood for his research.