Control of breathing and the circulation in high-altitude mammals and birds
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Hypoxia is an unremitting stressor at high altitudes that places a premium on oxygen transport by the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Phenotypic plasticity and genotypic adaptation at various steps in the O2 cascade could help offset the effects of hypoxia on cellular O2 supply in high-altitude natives. In this review, we will discuss the unique mechanisms by which ventilation, cardiac output, and blood flow are controlled in high-altitude mammals and birds. Acclimatization to high altitudes leads to some changes in respiratory and cardiovascular control that increase O2 transport in hypoxia (e.g., ventilatory acclimatization to hypoxia). However, acclimatization or development in hypoxia can also modify cardiorespiratory control in ways that are maladaptive for O2 transport. Hypoxia responses that arose as short-term solutions to O2 deprivation (e.g., peripheral vasoconstriction) or regional variation in O2 levels in the lungs (i.e., hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction) are detrimental at in chronic high-altitude hypoxia. Evolved changes in cardiorespiratory control have arisen in many high-altitude taxa, including increases in effective ventilation, attenuation of hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, and changes in catecholamine sensitivity of the heart and systemic vasculature. Parallel evolution of some of these changes in independent highland lineages supports their adaptive significance. Much less is known about the genomic bases and potential interactive effects of adaptation, acclimatization, developmental plasticity, and trans-generational epigenetic transfer on cardiorespiratory control. Future work to understand these various influences on breathing and circulation in high-altitude natives will help elucidate how complex physiological systems can be pushed to their limits to maintain cellular function in hypoxia.
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