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Genome Med. 2009 Dec 18;1(12):117. doi: 10.1186/gm117.

Metabolic adaptation of skeletal muscle to high altitude hypoxia: how new technologies could resolve the controversies.

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Department of Physiology, Development & Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EG, UK.


In most tissues of the body, cellular ATP production predominantly occurs via mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation of reduced intermediates, which are in turn derived from substrates such as glucose and fatty acids. In order to maintain ATP homeostasis, and therefore cellular function, the mitochondria require a constant supply of fuels and oxygen. In many disease states, or in healthy individuals at altitude, tissue oxygen levels fall and the cell must meet this hypoxic challenge to maintain energetics and limit oxidative stress. In humans at altitude and patients with respiratory disease, loss of skeletal muscle mitochondrial density is a consistent finding. Recent studies that have used cultured cells and genetic mouse models have elucidated a number of elegant adaptations that allow cells with a diminished mitochondrial population to function effectively in hypoxia. This article reviews these findings alongside studies of hypoxic human skeletal muscle, putting them into the context of whole-body physiology and acclimatization to high-altitude hypoxia. A number of current controversies are highlighted, which may eventually be resolved by a systems physiology approach that considers the time-or tissue-dependent nature of some adaptive responses. Future studies using high-throughput metabolomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic technologies to investigate hypoxic skeletal muscle in humans and animal models could resolve many of these controversies, and a case is therefore made for the integration of resulting data into computational models that account for factors such as duration and extent of hypoxic exposure, subjects' backgrounds, and whether data have been acquired from active or sedentary individuals. An integrated and more quantitative understanding of the body's metabolic response to hypoxia and the conditions under which adaptive processes occur could reveal much about the ways that tissues function in the very many disease states where hypoxia is a critical factor.

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