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How we adapt to life at 5400m

last modified Apr 23, 2018 01:33 PM
Jules Griffin, James West and collaborators have published a paper in PNAS.

Jules Griffin and James West of Biochemistry, with collaborators from PDN, UCL and Southampton have published a paper in PNAS which addresses how Sherpas adapt to high altitudes faster than Westerners as part of the Xtreme Everest 2 expedition to Everest Basecamp. 

This study relied on data and samples collected as part of a series of physiological studies conducted in 2013 at Everest basecamp in Nepal at a height of 5400 m. In particular the study set out to address how some individuals can adapt to the low oxygen levels at high altitude by comparing European trekkers with Sherpas from Kathmandu. Some of the best mountaineers in the world are ethnically Sherpas, but no one knows how their physiology and biochemistry adapts to this extreme environment. The trekkers included Tom Ashmore and Jules Griffin from the Department of Biochemistry. 

At basecamp the pressure is half of that at sea level which decreases the amount of oxygen that one breathes proportionally. To test how this affected physical activity a range of tests were performed including a series of exercise bike studies, respirometry on muscle biopsies, biofluid analysis, microvascular imaging and nitric oxide production. One of the striking differences between the Sherpas and Europeans was how glycolytic the metabolism was in the Sherpa population. This is believed to in part arise from novel SNPs in the gene PPAR-alpha, which in part regulates the ability to oxidise fatty acids. Understanding this mechanism could help us produce treatments for diseases where oxygen delivery is impaired such as occurs during organ failure in intensive care patients.


Stephanie Low

Publication Date

23 May 2017