Sherpas: What Makes Them Superhuman?

Jun 28, 2017 By Vaibhav S., Young Editor
Vaibhav Seshadri's picture

How do you want to make a mark-- go to space, become a billionaire, or perhaps climb Mt. Everest? All of these are incredible feats involving an immense amount of hardwork and perseverance.

But what if I told you there are a group of people who climb mountains such as the Everest with utmost ease!

Sherpas are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Nepal-- a country which is also home to the tallest mountain on earth. Sherpas work as guides and porters for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, and are incredibly valuable to climbers because of their expertise and knowledge of the mountains.

The Study

Sherpas are generally renowned for their superhuman ability to scale mountains with little to no trouble. A group of scientists from the U.K studied ten British citizens to see how their body reacted to the harsh altitude compared to the Sherpas.

Skin samples were taken from the upper thigh of the participants before their departure to Kathmandu, Nepal. A second set of samples were taken after the volunteers set camp at the Everest Base camp (5000 meters above sea level). Multiple tests were run on both the ‘normal’ people and the Sherpas before, after and during the trek to check oxygen levels and other vitals. 

What Did Scientists Find?

Surprisingly the Red Blood Cell (RBC) count in the Sherpas was much lower than that of ‘normal’ People. RBC's carry oxygen to the cells, to help produce energy for our body to function and perform all the tasks we do everyday.

One would think that since the Sherpas don’t have as much oxygen in their body, they wouldn’t be able to scale the mammoth mountains of the Himalayas. However, it turns out the Sherpas use oxygen much more efficiently than regular people do, which gives them an advantage. 

When scientists examined the muscle cells, they noticed an interesting difference. In most people, the mitochondria-- also known as the powerhouse of the cell, uses fats along with glucose to produce energy. But when fats are used to produce energy, the cells require much more oxygen than glucose. The Sherpas, on the other hand, use only glucose because their cells contain a gene called PPAR1 (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor 1). This allows their bodies to produce energy without much oxygen, which is scarce at such high altitudes.

This latest study gives scientists more insight into how the human body adapts to the environment, and could help treat patients who suffer from hypoxia - a low oxygen condition. Amazing, isn't it!