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The Tibetan ‘altitude gene’ came from extinct human species

When travellers head to Tibet to explore the stunning walking trails, the air is so thin that they can struggle to breathe in the high-altitude environment. So how do the local inhabitants get on with daily life? It has been discovered that it’s all thanks to a now-extinct species – the Denisovans.

Previous studies revealed that the ethnic people of Tibet, who live high in the Himalayas at altitudes of 4000 metres, possess a gene variant that gives them an edge over foreigners.

Yet the gene variant’s origins were always a mystery.

Now a study in Nature Journal claims the Tibetan variant of EPAS-1, which helps the body react to low levels of oxygen, came from interbreeding with an extinct species and spread through the population about 30,000 years ago.

This information has arrived from a 40,000-year-old tooth and the pinkie-finger bone of a young girl, found in Siberia in 2008, which was the first known discovery of the Denisovan race.

Co-author of the paper Rasmus Nielsen and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, compared the Tibetan variant gene to the DNA sequence of the Denisovan samples and found a match.

It is further evidence that interbreeding had significant effects on our evolution.

Svante Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told New Scientist it represented one of the “most spectacular cases of [genetic] adaptation in humans”.

“It is very satisfying to see that gene flow from Denisovans, an extinct group of archaic humans that we discovered only four years ago, is now found to have had important consequences for people living today.”

Yet another trip that science has taken us on, showing us the fascinating intricacies behind evolution.

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