(Reuters) – How do Tibetans thrive in high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions that would make others wither? Well, they may have received some help from an unexpected source.
Scientists said on Wednesday many Tibetans possess a rare variant of a gene involved in carrying oxygen in the blood that they likely inherited from an enigmatic group of extinct humans who interbred with our species tens of thousands of years ago.
It enables Tibetans to function well in low oxygen levels at elevations upwards of 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) like the vast high plateau of southwestern China. People without this variant would be apt to develop thick blood, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, low-birth-weight babies and higher infant mortality.
This version of the EPAS1 gene is nearly identical to one found in Denisovans, a lineage related to Neanderthals – but is very different from other people today.
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