Enlarged spleen key to diving endurance of Indonesian 'sea nomads'

21 April, 2018, 10:29 | Author: Anita Tucker
  • Nomadic divers evolve larger spleens to stay underwater for 13 minutes, scientists find

An global team of researchers studied the Bajau and found they had significantly larger spleens than the people of a neighbouring village who primarily farm rather than fish for their food.

The Bajau had significantly larger spleens than the nondiving Saluan, says Rasmus Nielsen, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior author on the study.

But while the Bajau people's talents have always been known, it was unclear whether the skill was the result of practice, as in the case of the excellent underwater vision of Thai "sea nomad" children, or the result of adaptations which have their roots in the Bajau people's DNA.

Melissa Ilardo, from Cambridge University, started the project as a PhD candidate.

"They're explorers, so I think they're inherently curious and want to know more about the world, including about their own biology", she says.

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Research on diving seals has suggested that larger spleens could be linked to longer dive times.

Among the Bajau-one group of people who live on houseboats in the waterways around and between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia-divers have been recorded holding their breath for over five minutes while hunting for fish or shellfish. Some members can dive up to 70 meters (230 feet) with nothing more than a set of weights and a pair of wooden goggles, the scientists said.

It's interesting that in comparison with neighbors, the Saluan people, the Bajau have spleens that are 50% larger. A large spleen means even more oxygen-carrying red blood cells can be pumped into the circulatory system when the organ contracts, allowing individuals to stay underwater for longer. Genetic changes have allowed one population in Southeast Asia to grow plus-size spleens that may enhance their breath-holding capabilities, according to an global research team's analysis. Thus, diving leads to a slowing of the heartbeat (bradycardia), which reduces oxygen consumption, as well as a narrowing of the peripheral blood vessels (vasoconstriction), which selectively redistributes the blood flow to the organs most sensitive to hypoxia.

Prior to her travels, Ilardo spent months learning the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, which the Bajau people speak in addition to their native language, so that she could communicate with them directly, and convey to them the research findings. A specific gene called PDE10A was found among the Bajau. "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. "If you genetically alter mice to have an absence of the thyroid hormone T4, their spleen size is drastically reduced, but this effect is actually reversible with an injection of T4".

"There we saw this hugely significant difference", she said. Researcher Melissa Ilardo explains that they never dive competitively so the duration they can spend under water at one-go has never been measured.

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Spleen contraction can boost oxygen levels in the body by 9%. By making their data freely available to other researchers, she and her co-authors hope that some of what they've learned from the Bajau can be applied in medical contexts.

"We can't really. expose people to new conditions and have controlled genetic experiments in the same way we can do in fruit flies and mice", Nielsen said.

Studying marine dwellers such as the Bajau has great potential for researching acute hypoxia in a new way.

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.

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