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Mol Biol Evol. 2012 Nov;29(11):3359-70. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss144. Epub 2012 May 23.

Genetic adaptation of the hypoxia-inducible factor pathway to oxygen pressure among eurasian human populations.

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State Key Laboratory of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Kunming, China.


Research into the mechanisms of human adaptation to the hypoxic environment of high altitude is of great interest to the fields of human physiology and clinical medicine. Recently, the gene EGLN1, from the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathway, was identified as being involved in the hypoxic adaptation of highland Andeans and Tibetans. Both highland Andeans and Tibetans have adapted to an extremely hypoxic habitat and less attention has been paid to populations living in normoxic conditions at sea level and mild-hypoxic environments of moderate altitude, thus, whether a common adaptive mechanism exists in response to quantitative variations of environmental oxygen pressure over a wide range of residing altitudes is unknown. Here, we first performed a genome-wide association study of 35 populations from the Human Genome Diversity-CEPH Panel who dwell at sea level to moderate altitude in Eurasia (N = 691; 0-2,500 m) to identify the genetic adaptation profile of normoxic and mild-hypoxic inhabitants. In addition, we systematically compared the results from the present study to six previously published genome-wide scans of highland Andeans and Tibetans to identify shared adaptive signals in response to quantitative variations of oxygen pressure. For normoxic and mild-hypoxic populations, the strongest adaptive signal came from the mu opioid receptor-encoding gene (OPRM1, 2.54 × 10(-9)), which has been implicated in the stimulation of respiration, while in the systematic survey the EGLN1-DISC1 locus was identified in all studies. A replication study performed with highland Tibetans (N = 733) and sea level Han Chinese (N = 748) confirmed the association between altitude and SNP allele frequencies in OPRM1 (in Tibetans only, P < 0.01) and in EGLN1-DISC1 (in Tibetans and Han Chinese, P < 0.01). Taken together, identification of the OPRM1 gene suggests that cardiopulmonary adaptation mechanisms are important and should be a focus in future studies of hypoxia adaptation. Furthermore, the identification of the EGLN1 gene from the HIF pathway suggests a common adaptive mechanism for Eurasian human populations residing at different altitudes with different oxygen pressures.

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