Indonesian tribe of 'fish people' evolve giant spleens for deep diving

All the equipment they need

For over 1,000 years the Bajau have collected food by free diving with spears. Ilardo chose to see whether Bajau spleens were similarly special.

Their ability to stay submerged for extended periods is well documented, prompting researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of California-Berkeley to launch a scientific investigation.

A second genetic adaptation associated with the Bajau involves the constriction of blood vessels in the extremities to preserve oxygen for vital organs. This is an incredible example of natural selection which seemingly has only affected this special people.

A Bajua diver hunts fish. Don't hold your breath. Its roles include filtering out old cells and supporting the immune system. "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 says. The bigger the spleen, the greater amounts of freshly oxygenated blood.

The global research team, led by academics from the Universities of Copenhagen, Cambridge and Berkeley, therefore eliminated the possibility that larger spleens were simply a plastic response to diving and began to investigate the Bajau's genetic data. Which, as the researchers themselves admit, was a bit werid.

"We believe that in the Bajau they have an adaptation that increases Thyroid hormone levels and therefore increases their spleen size", added Miss Ilardo. Dr. Illardo did an ultrasound on members from each village, which she compared and the results which showed the Bajau people had larger spleens. In mice, PDE10A is known for regulating a thyroid hormone that controls spleen size, lending support for the idea that the Bajau might have evolved the spleen size necessary to sustain their long and frequent dives. Something a bit more genetic.

Researchers also collected spit samples from participants and identified several gene variants that were seen at much higher frequency in the genomes of the Bajau people than the Saluans.

Gone fishin
Gone fishin

However, the data do show that the Bajau diverged from the non-diving Saluan around 15,000 years ago. "I wanted to make sure that this was a cooperative effort", says Ilardo. In mice, researchers have found that thyroid hormone levels affect spleen size.

Now settled around the islands of Indonesia, they are famous for their extraordinary breath-holding ability. Still, it's an intriguing finding.

This is the first time a genetic adaptation to diving has been tracked in humans.

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. "It's the co-evolution of human culture and humans as a species", she said. While these features are awesome they also could be part of the natural selection. "But nature has made experiments for us that tell us how humans react and adapt genetically to a whole new set of physiological conditions". Even the related people in the area do not have this mutation. Acute hypoxia is a leading cause of complications in emergency care.

"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.

'I thought that if selection acted on the seals to give them larger spleens, it could do the same in humans'.

Anthropologist Cynthia Beall from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, isn't yet convinced Ilardo and her colleagues fully understand what's happened with the Bajau. "A lot of them are threatened and this is not just a loss culturally and linguistically, but for genetics, medicine, and sciences in general. And we do have a trip planned to return to the community to explain the results to them". "They're explorers, so I think they're inherently curious and want to know more about the world, including about their own biology".

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