Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
Population History and Altitude Related Adaptation in the Sherpa.pdf (386.29 kB)

Population history and altitude-related adaptation in the sherpa

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journal contribution
posted on 2021-04-15, 11:03 authored by Sushil Bhandari, Gianpiero CavalleriGianpiero Cavalleri
The first ascent of Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 brought global attention to the Sherpa people and human performance at altitude. The Sherpa inhabit the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, and are descendants of a population that has resided continuously on the Tibetan plateau for the past ∼25,000 to 40,000 years. The long exposure of the Sherpa to an inhospitable environment has driven genetic selection and produced distinct adaptive phenotypes. This review summarizes the population history of the Sherpa and their physiological and genetic adaptation to hypoxia. Genomic studies have identified robust signals of positive selection across EPAS1, EGLN1, and PPARA, that are associated with hemoglobin levels, which likely protect the Sherpa from altitude sickness. However, the biological underpinnings of other adaptive phenotypes such as birth weight and the increased reproductive success of Sherpa women are unknown. Further studies are required to identify additional signatures of selection and refine existing Sherpa-specific adaptive phenotypes to understand how genetic factors have underpinned adaptation in this population. By correlating known and emerging signals of genetic selection with adaptive phenotypes, we can further reveal hypoxia-related biological mechanisms of adaptation. Ultimately this work could provide valuable information regarding treatments of hypoxia-related illnesses including stroke, heart failure, lung disease and cancer.


Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Irish Research Council (GOIPD/2018/408)

Investigators Programme grant from Science Foundation Ireland (12/IP/1727)



The original article is available at

Published Citation

Bhandari S, Cavalleri GL. Population history and altitude-related adaptation in the Sherpa. Front Physiol. 2019;10:1116.

Publication Date

28 August 2019

PubMed ID



  • School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences

Research Area

  • Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders


Frontiers Media SA


  • Published Version (Version of Record)