Mountaineers who excel on the heady, oxygen-poor heights may have a secret advantage in the form of specially tailored genes.
A team led by Hugh Montgomery of University College in London investigated natural variants of the gene for an enzyme known as ACE (for "angiotensin-converting enzyme"). ACE is involved in the regulation of blood pressure and may affect the development of skeletal muscle.
The team's findings, in the May 21 issue of Nature, suggest that a specific variant of the gene is correlated with physical endurance. The variant, known as the "insertion" or "I" form, was far more strongly represented among "elite" British mountaineers than in the general population.
In fact, of 15 climbers who had a history of ascending above 26,246 feet without oxygen, six had a pair of I's and nine had at least one I. In a separate study, having two I's was also shown to dramatically improve weight-lifting endurance.
Further work will be required, researchers say, to determine whether the linkage holds up beyond the small groups studied.