Jessie Williamson is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at UNM studying evolutionary adaptation of birds to high altitude in the Andes.
This research was made possible in part by funding from the Latin American & Iberian Institute and a Tinker Foundation Field Research Grant (FRG). For more information about the FRG, please visit the LAII website.
Over >140 million people worldwide live permanently at high altitude (1), where risk of Chronic Mountain Sickness (CMS) is serious. CMS is a disease in which red blood cell volume increases dangerously and oxygen levels in the blood decrease abnormally, which can be fatal. Rates of CMS in the Andes are among the highest in the world. In Peru, CMS is considered a major public health problem, where it is estimated to affect 14.8–18.2% of the population in certain regions (2, 3). Despite the parallels in high-altitude adaptation between humans and birds, birds do not suffer from CMS. This is intriguing, given that some bird species have lived in the Andes far longer than humans (~6–10 million versus ~11,000 years; 4, 5) In my research, I aim to reveal the genes and physiological responses that birds use to protect themselves against low oxygen pressures. This will enable me to understand how birds differ from humans, and what contributes to their ability to live at high-altitude without suffering from CMS.