Could this Tibetan snake provide the answer to altitude sickness?
Serpent that survives in hot springs on world’s highest plateau found to have same genetic mutation as local human population
Chinese scientists are hoping that new research into how a rare type of snake manages to survive on the Tibetan plateau will one day help them find a way to prevent altitude sickness in humans.
According to the study, the Bailey’s, or hot-spring, snake shares the same adapted gene found in humans who live at extreme altitudes, and which helps blood cells to carry more oxygen around the body.
“The genetic mechanisms of how animals – both cold- and warm-blooded – adapt to extreme environments will play a key role in preventing and treating humans affected by high-altitude disease,” said Li Jiatang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of the lead scientists on the study.
The research, which was published last week in the American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the first to show how cold-blooded animals adjusted to life on the roof of the world, he said.
As its name suggests, the snake at the centre of the study lives in hot springs and swamp meadows at altitudes of 3,500 to 4,400 metres (roughly 11,500 to 14,400 feet) on the world’s highest plateau.
The research found that through its evolutionary history the serpent has undergone mutations to its EPAS1 gene to protect it against high ultraviolet radiation and low levels of oxygen. While the EPAS1 gene is found in all humans, a similar adaptation to that found in the snake was also earlier discovered in people who live at altitude.
In 2013, researchers at the University of California in San Diego found that genes in mammals, including humans, react to oxygen deficiency by producing special proteins.
Combining those findings with their own research, Li and his team established that the gene plays the same role in the snake as it does in humans: improving the way in which blood cells carry oxygen around the body.
They said it was the first time such a correlation of genetic mechanisms had been found in both cold- and warm-blooded animals.
Altitude sickness can be a serious problem for those not used to living high above sea level. Its effects include headaches, nausea, vomiting and in some cases life-threatening conditions that can cause irreversible damage to the brain or lungs.
Li said he hoped the new research would help shed more light on how to prevent and treat altitude sickness for people living in or travelling to places at high elevations, like the Tibetan plateau or the Andes mountains of South America.
“Chronic mountain sickness is common in the Andes region but absent among people living on the East African plateau,” he said. “It depends on how long they have lived there.”