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Tibetans Hold Record For Evolutionary Speed

Tibetans can now not only lay claim to the tallest mountain peak in the world, but also to having the fastest-evolving gene in the human race.

Yaks rest on their way to Mount Everest.

Photo: reurinkjan (flickr)

Yaks get a rest on their way to Mount Everest.

Tibetans can now not only lay claim to Mount Everest, the tallest mountain peak in the world, but also to having the fastest-evolving gene in the human race.

A recent study on the EPAS1 gene, which regulates the body’s response to high-altitudes, shows that one of the variations — or alleles — of the gene is far more common in ethnic Tibetans than their Han neighbors.

That may seem like evolutionary business-as-usual except for the fact that Tibetans split from the Hans less than 3,000 years ago.

Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, commented on the findings to Live Science:

It took only a few hundred generations to change the allele frequency, which can only happen if a lot of people have died… In that sense, it must have had a strong effect on fitness.

The next most rapidly-evolving trait in humans is lactose-intolerance. Europeans are thought to have developed the trait about 7,500 years ago.

Read more:

  • Tibetans Underwent Fastest Evolution Seen in Humans (Live Science)
  • Natural selection on EPAS1 (HIF2α) associated with low hemoglobin concentration in Tibetan highlanders (PNAS study)
Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

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