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Christina A Eichstaedt


Research project: High altitude adaptation in Andean populations

During their migrations out of Africa humans successfully colonised a vast variety of landscapes and adapted to different environmental conditions. Temperature ranges, UV and dietary changes all constitute strong selective pressures imposed by the new environments. My particular research interest lies in native high altitude populations. The main environmental pressure is reduced oxygen pressure (hypoxia). This leads to immediate physiological responses in lowlanders travelling to high altitude such as increased breathing rate and an elevated number of erythrocytes. Populations living in this environment for many thousand years have likely developed specific adaptations to thrive despite hypoxia. Interestingly, populations in the Andes, the Himalayas and on the Ethiopian plateau have all taken their unique path and show different physiological adaptations.

I focus on the highland populations living in North-West Argentina, the Collas. They live in the Puna region above 3000 m and are much less researched in comparison to Quechua from Peru or Aymara from Bolivia. Native Americans were encouraged to participate in a comprehensive study in which we recorded various physiological measurements and collected saliva samples for DNA extraction. Whole genome scans were conducted and analysed regarding signals of positive selection. Finally, the connection of genotypic information and functional consequences was sought.

This research extends our current knowledge of human variation and adaptability to extreme environments such as high altitude. It will shed light on the evolutionary path taken by the Colla population to thrive in the demanding environment of the Andes.

I am intrigued by human diversity and the role of genes in its generation. The adaptability to extreme environment is a good example of selective pressures shaping our genome and altering phenotypic traits to enable life in harsh regions of the world. Moreover, I am interested in the population history of the Americas, and it is exciting to follow the discovery of new archaeological sites to unravel the path the first settlers may have taken. Genetics can also aid in this respect by inferring similarities between populations and migration patterns. New fields such as ancient DNA research, epigenetics and whole genome sequencing may reveal patterns of adaptation and demographic signatures we would not have expected. Thus, I am keen to embrace new technologies to answer long lasting evolutionary anthropological questions such as human adaptability and diversity.



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