Bajau people are born to dive, study shows

Ms Ilardo spent several months in Jaya Bakti Indonesia, taking genetic samples and conducting ultrasound scans of people from the Bajau and Saluan tribes

Nielsen and Eske Willerslev, who is on the faculty of both the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, are the senior authors of a paper about the finding that will be published online April 19 in the journal Cell. "There's nothing like seeing them in the water".

Ilardo and Nielsen agree, and plan to go back to Indonesia to continue studying the Bajau. She recalled how a Bajau man free diving alongside her suddenly dropped another 30 or 40 feet to scoop up a giant clam "like it was no problem at all".

But it had never previously been seen in humans.

First, the heart slows, which lowers the amount of oxygen consumed.

Among the top hits was a variant adjacent to the gene for PDE10A, a cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterase involved in regulating smooth muscle contraction, including the muscles that surround the spleen.

"The spleen is a weird one", Ilardo said. "I basically just showed up at the house of the chief of the village, this weird, foreign girl with an ultrasound machine asking about spleens", she recalled.

Ilardo used a portable ultrasound machine to gauge spleen size in 59 Bajau people. Its roles include filtering out old cells and supporting the immune system.

Researchers have shown in 1990 that the spleen of Japanese divers contracted more than normal, which increased the oxygen level in the blood up to 9% during dives.

The Bajau tribe, who live in Indonesia and other island nations such as the Philippines, are thought to have evolved the extra large spleens over more than a millennium.

"I think it's fascinating to see just how extraordinary this population is, to think that they're nearly like superhumans living among us with these really extraordinary capabilities", said Ilardo.

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They found that Bajau had spleens about 50 percent larger than the Saluan. Thus, according to anthropologist Cynthia Beall of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, although the Bajau dive more frequently than most people, each of these dives is not necessarily very long. Their analysis honed in on a single location: PDE10A, a gene that only the Bajau have, and which is thought to control thyroid hormone T4. In mice, researchers have found that thyroid hormone levels affect spleen size. Currently, Ilardo and her colleagues only know these genes are different in the Bajau.

Dr Ilardo explained,"There's a human dive response that's triggered by holding your breath and submerging yourself in water". In addition, she adds, a larger spleen does not necessarily mean greater expulsion of red blood cells.

For members of an Indonesian group known as the Bajau, the ability to dive deeply for long periods of time appears to be in their genes. "I think it's fascinating to see just how extraordinary this population is, to think that they're nearly like superhumans living among us with these really extraordinary capabilities".

So, the worldwide team of scientists began to investigate the Bajau's genetic data.

The strongest hit overall came from a gene called BDKRB2, which may increase how much peripheral blood vessels constrict.

"Free diving is extremely unsafe, and so even highly trained free divers often die because they lose consciousness on ascent and they drown", said Ilardo, who has been free diving recreationally since she was 4 years old. They have lived in these regions for a thousand years now.

According to first author Ilardo this ability to hold breaths for so long prompted the team to look at the spleens of these people.

This isn't the only evidence of "recent" human evolution. Some scientists have likened these evolutionary adaptations to the ones that have allowed Tibetans to thrive at high elevations. Because thyroid hormones regulate normal erythropoiesis during early postnatal development, the observed large spleen phenotype in the Bajau may be indicative of higher volume of erythrocytic cells.

"This isn't an adaptation to harsh conditions".

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