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Hum Biol. 2000 Feb;72(1):201-28.

Tibetan and Andean patterns of adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia.

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Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106-7125, USA.


Understanding the workings of the evolutionary process in contemporary humans requires linking the evolutionary history of traits with their current genetics and biology. Unusual environments provide natural experimental settings to investigate evolution and adaptation. The example of high-altitude hypoxia illustrates some of the progress and many of the remaining challenges for studies of evolution in contemporary populations. Current studies exemplify the frequently encountered problem of determining whether large, consistent population differences in mean values of a trait reflect genetic differences. In this review I describe 4 quantitative traits that provide evidence that indigenous populations of the Tibetan and Andean plateaus differ in their phenotypic adaptive responses to high-altitude hypoxia. These 4 traits are resting ventilation, hypoxic ventilatory response, oxygen saturation, and hemoglobin concentration. The Tibetan means of the first 2 traits were more than 0.5 standard deviation higher than the Aymara means, whereas the Tibetan means were more than 1 standard deviation lower than the Aymara means for the last 2 traits. Quantitative genetic analyses of within-population variance revealed significant genetic variance in all 4 traits in the Tibetan population but only in hypoxic ventilatory response and hemoglobin concentration in the Aymara population. A major gene for oxygen saturation was detected among the Tibetans. These findings are interpreted as indirect evidence of population genetic differences. It appears that the biological characteristics of sea-level humans did not constrain high-altitude colonists of the 2 plateaus to a single adaptive response. Instead, microevolutionary processes may have operated differently in the geographically separated Tibetan and Andean populations exposed to the same environmental stress. Knowledge of the genetic bases of these traits will be necessary to evaluate these inferences. Future research will likely be directed toward determining whether the population means reflect differences identified at the chromosomal level. Future research will also likely consider the biological pathways and environmental influences linking genotypes to phenotypes, the costs and benefits of the Tibetan and Andean patterns of adaptation, and the question of whether the observed phenotypes are indeed adaptations that enhance Darwinian fitness.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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