Humans Evolve Deep Diving Abilities

Is it possible that small groups of humans have evolved special abilities? For example, some people can hold their breath underwater for a few minutes. But a group of people called the Bajau takes free diving to the extreme, staying underwater for as long as 13 minutes at depths of around 200 feet.

These nomadic people live in waters winding through the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they dive to hunt for fish or search for natural elements that can be used in crafts.

Now, a study in the journal Cell offers the first clues that a DNA mutation for larger spleens gives the Bajau a genetic advantage for life in the deep.

Previous work showed that in seals, marine mammals that spend much of their life underwater, spleens are disproportionately large. Study author Melissa Llardo from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen wanted to see if the same characteristic was true for diving humans. During a trip to Thailand, she heard about the sea nomads and was impressed by their legendary abilities.

She also took data from a related group of people called Saluan, who live on the Indonesian mainland. Comparing the two samples back in Copenhagen, her team found that the median size of a Bajau person's spleen was 50 percent bigger than the same organ in a Saluan individual.

The researchers also stumbled across a gene called PDE10A, which is thought to control a certain thyroid hormone, in the Bajau but not the Saluan. In mice, the hormone has been linked to spleen size, and mice that are manipulated to have lower amounts of the hormone have smaller spleens.

Llardo theorizes that over time, natural selection would have helped the Bajau, who have lived in the region for a thousand years, develop the genetic advantage.

Growing up in the 1960's, this seems like science fiction to me. I distinctly remember an episode of the sixties sf series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in which a scientist decides that the best way to breathe underwater is to give himself gills. Alas, once equipped with gills, and fully acclimated to life in the sea, Dr. Jenkins and his associate lie in wait outside the submarine Seaview, converting every diver who emerges from the ship into mermen.


(From The Amphibians - aired Mar-08-1965)

Via NatGeo.

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