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Question Your World: Can Genetic Mutations Really Happen?

From radioactive bug bites to strange evolutionary adaptations, the concept of mutations has been a part of science fiction for a long time. Growing blue fur, healing super quickly, or flying are just a few examples of results of genetic mutations, but can these genetic mutations really happen? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

WolverineCyclops, and Jean Gray are some of science fiction's favorite characters. Their genetic mutations give them the ability to do all kinds of cool stuff like heal quickly, be super strong, read minds, and so on. This, of course, leads to the conversation of what would your mutant powers be if you had one? Well, some people actually do have a slight mutation that helps them live a little easier. Not as exotic as comic book super heroes, but super helpful none the less.

Recently scientists observed that a vast majority--88%--of the Tibetan population has a slight genetic mutation in their DNA. Just one base pair makes a pretty big difference, which is precisely what was observed in a field study by University of Utah scientists. This research was made possible by having access to the Tibetan population and certainly their cooperation. In order to do this, his holiness the Dahlia Lama had to get involved. He encouraged the people of Tibet to participate in this study as it is helpful in understanding not only more about these high altitude dwellers but humanity as a whole.

Living 14,800 feet up has some pretty drastic impacts on the body. Most of us would not be able to live and work as easily up there, in fact most of us would be in quite a bit of danger due to low levels of oxygen. In this situation the human body usually floods the circulatory system with oxygen spreading red blood cells. This influx of massive quantities of red blood cells creates a huge stress on the human system and could lead to vascular issues and even heart failure. The Tibetan residents however have a single base pair mutation in their DNA which blocks the body's response to proliferate the extra red blood cells. This allows them to the ability to function in thinner air regions without the harmful effects of blood diseases.

According to the study, this mutation began about 8,000 years ago in that region and has been spreading in their community with each passing generation. Currently 88% of the highland Tibetans have this genetic trait. Not as exotic as blue fur, telekinesis, or bamfing, but it’s a mutation none the less and it gives them a distinct advantage in living in higher altitudes.

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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