Human evolution is at work in the Andes mountains. People have evolved genetic adaptations to survive high altitude living. A recent study has highlighted chemical changes that control the activity of that DNA. Read on to learn more.
New Studies on High Altitude Living Highlights Chemical Changes That Control the Activity of That DNA
Cold temperatures, scarce oxygen, and intense ultraviolet radiation make the Andes a tough place to live. Not everyone can do it either.
Indigenous people have lived 2,500 meters above sea level in the Andes Mountains for more than 11,000 years. The Quechua people, the largest indigenous group in South America who predominantly live in the Peruvian Andes, predate the Incan Empire. Their way of life continued on long after the empire fell.
Normally, people cannot survive the mountains’ harsh environment, yet the Andean people have adapted to the conditions.
A recent study has shown that high-altitude living people have developed characteristics that allow them to survive and thrive. Specifically, their genes have altered, and so have the chemical modifications that control the DNA’s activity.
The epigenetic alterations have essentially allowed people to adapt to the severe environment more rapidly than standard genetics would allow.
The international team of researchers from the U.S, Germany, and Peru looked at the Quechua people’s methylation patterns, typically born and raised 3,000 meters above sea level. Some of the subjects had been born and grew up above 3,000 meters. Some had been born at sea level, then had moved to high altitudes, and some had been born at high altitudes, then moved to sea level.
Regardless of where the participants were born, there were apparent differences in methylation patterns between the groups. The scientists believed that because the Quechua were once exposed to high-altitude living and low-level oxygen at birth or during childhood, the epigenetics is evermore bonded on their genes.
This new study also found a relationship with the gene that is involved with the breakdown of sugar, which was unique to people living at high altitudes. This suggests that epigenetic changes will continue for those exposed to high-altitude living.
Surprisingly they also found that even after moving to sea level, the alterations are irreversible. Therefore the Quechua continue to function as if they lived at high altitudes.
Lead author Ainash Childebayeva, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: “I think it’s exciting that we found anything at all.” The findings “lend more evidence to the idea that humans can evolve to challenging conditions much more rapidly than previously thought.”
Despite the findings, the scientists did note that epigenetics’ role in helping people adapt to high altitude living is still not exact.
Please share your thoughts about high altitude living and epigenetic with us in the comments section below.
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