Send to

Choose Destination
J Physiol. 2016 Mar 1;594(5):1137-49. doi: 10.1113/JP270079. Epub 2015 Jun 26.

Mitochondrial function at extreme high altitude.

Author information

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


At high altitude, barometric pressure falls and with it inspired P(O2), potentially compromising O2 delivery to the tissues. With sufficient acclimatisation, the erythropoietic response increases red cell mass such that arterial O2 content (C(aO2)) is restored; however arterial P(O2)(P(aO2)) remains low, and the diffusion of O2 from capillary to mitochondrion is impaired. Mitochondrial respiration and aerobic capacity are thus limited, whilst reactive oxygen species (ROS) production increases. Restoration of P(aO2) with supplementary O2 does not fully restore aerobic capacity in acclimatised individuals, possibly indicating a peripheral impairment. With prolonged exposure to extreme high altitude (>5500 m), muscle mitochondrial volume density falls, with a particular loss of the subsarcolemmal population. It is not clear whether this represents acclimatisation or deterioration, but it does appear to be regulated, with levels of the mitochondrial biogenesis factor PGC-1α falling, and shows similarities to adapted Tibetan highlanders. Qualitative changes in mitochondrial function also occur, and do so at more moderate high altitudes with shorter periods of exposure. Electron transport chain complexes are downregulated, possibly mitigating the increase in ROS production. Fatty acid oxidation capacity is decreased and there may be improvements in biochemical coupling at the mitochondrial inner membrane that enhance O2 efficiency. Creatine kinase expression falls, possibly impairing high-energy phosphate transfer from the mitochondria to myofibrils. In climbers returning from the summit of Everest, cardiac energetic reserve (phosphocreatine/ATP) falls, but skeletal muscle energetics are well preserved, possibly supporting the notion that mitochondrial remodelling is a core feature of acclimatisation to extreme high altitude.

[Available on 2017-03-01]
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Wiley Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center