Yaks breathe easy thanks to newly discovered lung cells – Science

Breathing air high up on the Tibetan Plateau gives most people headaches, but massive yaks have no trouble sprinting through the grassy plains. In a new study, researchers describe a newly discovered type of cell that may help these oxlike animals move so agilely in cold, low-oxygen conditions. Researchers have long known that yaks—as well as some people and dogs—possess genetic adaptations that help them thrive at high elevations. But yaks, it turns out, also have special cells in their lungs that may give them extra oomph at high altitudes, a Chinese team reports today in Nature Communications.
By comparing yaks’ DNA with that of cattle—close evolutionary cousins that lack low-oxygen adaptations—the researchers identified stretches of DNA that have diverged between the two animals. Such changes can point to alterations in a gene’s activity that have helped an animal adapt to its environment. As the researchers studied gene activity inside individual cells in the yaks’ lungs, they stumbled on an entirely new type of cell in the lining of the blood vessels. In these cells, two of the altered genes were much more active than in other lung cells. The researchers think this cell, which is common throughout yaks’ lungs, may make the animals’ blood vessels tougher and more fibrous, which might help with the demanding task of breathing air with relatively little oxygen.
Although this is the first special cell type suspected to have evolved to cope with low-oxygen conditions, the researchers expect similar cells exist in antelope and deer that also live on high plateaus. But it may not exist in humans: Whereas these yaks, antelope, and deer have lived and evolved in high elevations for millions of years, they note, people have occupied the plateau for only about 30,000 years.
Liz Pennisi is a senior correspondent covering many aspects of biology for Science.
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