A new study shows that the physiological makeup of Sherpas in Nepal actually gives them a huge advantage over anyone else attempting to summit mountains at high altitudes. It’s long been suspected that populations of people who live in the mountains must have a different genetic makeup to be able to cope with the changing air supply, especially those who live in the Himalayas.
The study found that Sherpas have thinner blood meaning they have a reduced capacity for oxygen and that the blood flows easier and puts less strain on the heart. While the European researchers and the Sherpas were in the mountains, they also tested fresh muscle tissue. The tests showed that “the Sherpas’ tissue was able to make much better use of oxygen by limiting the amount of body fat burned and maximising the glucose consumption. In other words, by preferentially burning body sugar rather than body fat, the Sherpas can get more calories per unit of oxygen breathed.”
When more tests were carried out in Cambridge a genetic variation was discovered. The Sherpas had a gene that altered the way fats are burned. Even more interesting, all of the Sherpas carried the glucose-favouring variant of the gene and yet almost none of the lowland volunteers participating in the study did. While the gene gives them a definite advantage, other factors such as a richer capillary network to improve blood flow are present and helps them cope with high altitudes.
More details and the full study can be found here.