Tibetan Scientist in Team Discovering Final Genetic Proof of Tibetan High Altitude Exceptionalism

Professor Donald A. McClain, Professor Josef Prchal and Dr. Tsewang Tashi in Prchal's lab at the University of Utah Medical Center, Friday, Aug 15, 2014. (Photo Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Aug 17 2014. A study led by University of Utah researchers has identified for the first time the genetic reason Tibetans can survive on the Tibetan Plateau, which has an average elevation of 14,800 feet. The results of the study, led by Josef Prchal, internist Donald McLain and hematologist and researcher Tsewang Tashi, were published online yesterday in the journal Nature Genetics.

By taking blood samples from 26 Tibetans living in Utah and Virginia — as well as dozens more from Tibetans and other Asians living in China and India — they found the gene EGLN1 changed by a single DNA base pair. Lowlanders who lack the genetic mutation suffer in thin air because their blood becomes thick with oxygen-carrying red blood cells in an attempt to feed oxygen-starved tissues. That can lead to long-term complications as acute mountain sickness or heart failure, Prchal said. But Tibetans’ bodies do not react to high altitude by producing extra red blood vessels, but by a unique molecular mechanism provided by this genetic mutation.

The mutation apparently began 8,000 years ago and “spread like fire” through the population. Those who had it thrived and, by natural selection, their offspring did, too. Today, 88 percent of Tibetans have the genetic variation, but it is virtually absent in closely related lowland Asians as Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Mongolians and Filipinos, the study found.

Tsewang Tashi, who came to Utah from India in 2012 said, “”The significance is … that we understand more about evolution.” (See full story in The Salt Lake Tribune)

This study brings to a wonderful and serendipitous culmination the earlier news reports we had of Tibetans inheriting special genes from Paleolithic cavemen.  As someone regularly commenting on Tibetan affairs, history, customs and what have you, I think it would not be presumptuous of me to offer a tradition-related perspective to this scientific development. Here goes:

That Tibetans anticipated Darwin in claiming descent from a monkey has been noted (tongue-in-cheek) by such scholars as Sir Charles Bell. But Tibet’s primal ancestor the “Compassionate Father Monkey” (pha tiu jhanjup-sempa) didn’t just stop there in establishing our claim to scientific distinction. Going one further, he mated with the female of a less advanced species of proto-humans of the genus drak-sinmu, usually translated as “rock-ogress”, to produce modern Tibetans.

The first scientific discovery of such cross-species mating was reported in the journals Nature and Science in January this year. Two separate teams of scientists successfully isolated Neanderthal genes in the DNA of present day humans, clearly showing that our out-of-Africa forbears mated with Neanderthal cavemen.

Then we learned six months later in July, that a cousin of the Neanderthals, a Paleolithic-era species of the genus Homo, the Denisovans, mated with early Tibetans, and even conferred on our DNA make-up a special gene varient, which gives people of Tibetan ethnicity their unique ability to survive at extreme high altitudes.

Interestingly enough, the few fossil samples of Denisovans we have are of a female (another rock-ogress?) and were discovered in 2010 in a Siberian cave. The fossils have been dated to at least about 50,000 years ago.

No one has yet excavated the “other” cave near the summit of Mount Zodang Gangpori, where our creation myth tells us that the inter-species mating which produced the Tibetan people first took place. The “Chenrezig Cave” features a naturally produced (rang-jung) rock image of the monkey ancestor. The mountain is east of the town and is regarded as one of the four sacred mountains of Central Tibet. Nesting below the triangular peaked mountain is the town of Tsetang, which literally mean “playground”, so called because it was the playground of the six progenies of the monkey and the rock-ogress, who are regarded as the ancestors of the six clans of Tibet (bod mi’u gdung drug).

I noticed that quite a few Tibetans on social media had re-posted the news reports of the genetic link of Tibetans to Denisovians and some were clearly excited by the news. I also came across a comment or two dismissing the whole thing as “not a big deal.” I suppose if you aren’t interested in a free and independent Tibet and want to be a citizen of Communist China, then it is clearly not important to know that there is a profound genetic difference between the Chinese and us. But if you’re someone like me who has over the decades squirreled away bits of information on the uniqueness of Tibet, its people, culture, history and environment then yesterday’s singular scientific report is like the one day of sunshine we sometimes got during the depressing long monsoons in the Darjeeling of my boyhood. Dr. Tsewang Tashi’s presence in this report is like the “sunshine holiday” my school (North Point) would declare on such a special day.


16 Replies to “Tibetan Scientist in Team Discovering Final Genetic Proof of Tibetan High Altitude Exceptionalism”

  1. I am not Tibetan

    but I don’t think there is a Tibetan who is not “intrested” in independent Tibet, and “want” to be citizen of China!!!

    if that is, they are not Tibetan, they are Chinese then

  2. I don’t know much about microbiology or genetics, still, I do recall reading genomic studies involving Sherpa, and another one comparing Han and Tibetan level of oxygen metabolism.

    DNA evidence is good enough in every court of law around the world, because the science is solid as physics. If any human lineage that has the right to live in Tibet, its Tibetans because Nature herself, via natural selection, has endowed Tibetans(along with Sherpa, and maybe that Siberian hunter in the Kurosawa movie who looks like he has more than a bit of Neanderthal in him), with the right mutation(those with the mutation thrived better than those without) so that we are most suited, best adapted to high altitude living.

    Congratulations to Dr, Tsewang Tashi and his fellow colleagues for advancing human knowledge.

  3. Anything that goes to say that; Tibetans and Chinese are distinctly different and separate one from the other gives me cause for a celebration . That too; when one of the researchers involved in this scientific findings is a fellow Tibetan ; all the more reason why we should burst with joy in happiness calling for a celebration . To be in exile , away from ones own home land and making news like this with such honorable scientists from world famous university calls Tibetans all the more for celebration. Congratulations to Dr. Tsewang Tashi and the team from a humble fellow Tibetan whose chest is pumped up with pride because of what you have achieved for Tibet. Thank you !

  4. Any anti-China group has new friend, if you want to court one. His name is Clive Palmer, a billionaire politician of Australia’s United Party.

    Among other things he is building a replica of Titanic, also called the Chinese ” bastard”.

    He is making headline. Just google it.

    But be forewarned, stuff like this is not for Ume-lam crazies.

  5. but I think that is a VERY broad way to speak of Tibetans and one which the Mongols, Sherpas and other Himalayan peoples you refer to might well disagree with. It’s almost like calling the origin of all people in Europe who have Anglo-Saxon ethnic heritage, English. I don’t think so. There’s a line to be drawn over such exaggeration in terms of national pride etc. and i think this is one. If we go back far enough we are actually ALL Africans, it all depends on how far one wants to go back. But let’s also stick to the facts too. The scientific research clearly states other groups have the gene not just Tibetans, and the research is disputed by some as far as I’m aware too. I think to state that this gene is only found in Tibetans is a VERY broad and misleading way to speak of this research and one which the Mongols, Sherpas and other Himalayan peoples would disagree with. It’s almost like calling the origin of all people in Europe who have Anglo-Saxon ethnic heritage, English. I don’t think so. There’s a line to be drawn over such exaggeration in terms of national pride etc. and i think this is one. If we go back far enough we are actually ALL Africans, it all depends on how far one wants to go back. But let’s also stick to the facts too. The scientific research clearly states other groups have the gene not just Tibetans, and the research is disputed by some as far as I’m aware too. I fail to see how this research shows a clear genetic difference between Chinese and Tibetans either. The Tibetans have been interbreeding with Chinese, mongols, Sherpas, Nepalis etc. for centuries. We only need to look to Dharma King Songtsen Gampo for evidence of that. Such arguments do nothing to further the cause of political freedom for Tibetans in Tibet either. Just increases a naive kind of ethnic nationalism which has the counter-productive effect of increasing division. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/07/070718-african-origin.html

  6. If this gene separates Tibetan from Chinese,yet another evidence that the two are separate.Any other evidence against this finding should be scientifically proven and just few empty uneducated claims would not suffice.

  7. One aspect of us being “all African” is we might consider that the geology in Africa allows exposure of a diverse fossil record. Meaning the land itself and climate are favorable to discovery. There very well could be as old of fossils else where waiting to be discovered.

  8. AW…here is a quote from Sci-News.com “The data revealed that the high-altitude variant of EPAS1 is so unusual that it could only have come from Denisovans. Aside from its low frequency in Han Chinese, it occurs in no other known humans, not even Melanesians whose genomes are nearly 5 percent Denisovan.” You write well but your argument is laced with opinion, conjecture, and exaggeration.
    “We found that part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans and very different from all other humans. We can do a statistical analysis to show that this must have come from Denisovans. There is no other way of explaining the data,” Prof Nielsen, University of California at Berkeley said.

  9. Oh.. I am sorry and the gene was found in only 5% of Han chinese, whereas, it was found in just under 90% of Tibetans.

  10. The discovery of that special or the“altitude- friendly” gene present in an overwhelming major of Tibetans is an interesting discovery in the evolution and perhaps an example in support of the theory of the survival of the fittest through the natural selection.

    For me this is interesting on two accounts. One of them is as already mentioned above. And the other is the fact that one of the researchers involved in the discovery is a young Tibetan scientist and not an elderly “Ghese” making some kind of big bang in the sphere of Buddhism.

    I hope fellow Tibetans will not think that I am a sort of rabid anti-Buddhism and our Doctors of Divinity. But frankly speaking, the younger generation of Tibetans is a bit fatigue of overdose of it at the expense of other things that we need urgently in the life of a people and a nation if we were to survive in dignity and freedom on this Earth!

    So Dr.Tsewang Tashi, Congratulation to you! And hope your lead will not remain a just lonely shooting star but a path finder that many young Tibetans are inspired to follow in the years to come.

    As a lay man, I am not qualified to say much on the full significance or lack of it about the discovery itself except to say the world of science and technology should galvanize the energy and attention of the younger Tibetans in the same way as the Buddhism did to their fellow Tibetans over thousand years ago. Perhaps, in this connection, the significance of Dr. Tsewang Tashi’s achievement lies not so much in the discovery itself, though praiseworthy, but a kind of role model for opening up an exciting area where Tibetans could and should direct their effort and attention.

    So I feel happy about this.

    His Americans colleagues need to be congratulated. But then I told to myself “just let it be” because Americans making scientific discovery is as common as the leaders and functionaries of CCP emptying the state coffer of China.

    However, I am not all that elated as some seem to be because this “Everest-friendly gene” is found in Tibetans. In my view, it is a biological advantage for us to be able to live comfortably at high altitude places. (Maybe it’s a positive omen that after all the Tibetan Plateau is going to be our home and only ours). Beyond that I wonder whether it’s wise to tom tom it as an ethnic or racial superiority.

    Gyaltsen Wangchuk.

  11. Gyaltse Wangchuk no Tibetan is claiming racial superiority in the delusion that we Tibetans are more advanced, or more biologically perfect than any other race just because genomic tests has repeatedly inferred Tibetans more adaptable to the Tibetan environment.

    Some Tibetans who do not like or trust the West or Western ideals could claim that these scientific results are nothing more than a devious conspiracy by the white colonial masters to justify the use of Tibetan and Sherpa as donkeys to carry their white shit up Everest. There is no end to speculations.

    Once again, what the science has teased out is, we Tibetans are well fitted to that particular(high altitude)environment. The science does not reveal whether we should feel superior or inferior. We should leave talks of racial superiority to those races who have a history of fondness and devotion for such a concept; the Han and Nazis.

  12. Interesting fact that Denisovans are named after Dionisij a religious Russian hermit who prayed and -perhaps- meditated in the cave that later was named after him and where the remains of those early human ancestors were found who in turn were named after the cave.

    Considering the spiritual origin of Denisovans’ name there is something poetic about their genetic links to Tibetans.

    I am happy about this find, I hope it once again highlights to the world that Tibet and China are two entirely separate civilizations- culturally, historically and genetically.

  13. the point is: given over 60-years of Chinese occupation and Tibet and Chinese claiming Tibet as barbarians even to this day, the notion that we were, somehow, amongst the oldest and rarest species don’t challenge the notion of occupation of the powerful by the powerless.

  14. Previously, it was believed that the Tibetan stock evolved over few thousand years to survive in this harsh and unforgiving plateau, and while this latest discovery actually points to a genetic linkage to an extinct human specie for this unique ability to survive in Tibet, it doesn’t change the basic premise that we are indeed quite different and that Tibet DOES in fact belongs to those who have this genes. Data does not lie. I would have preferred the whole evolving theory better but this is cool too.

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