At 21,000 ft on Mount Everest’s south aspect, inside a tent pitched beside a glacier at Camp II, Willie Benegas jabbed a needle into the arm of his climbing associate Matt Moniz. He was making an attempt to get a blood pattern, however Moniz’s veins had shriveled into threads due to the dehydrating results of altitude. The freezing air temperature compounded the issue, inflicting Moniz’s physique to shunt blood away from his extremities to heat his very important organs. Add in the truth that Benegas is a mountaineering information, not a phlebotomist, and it’s not onerous to think about the entire episode as a macabre sport of high-altitude darts, with Moniz’s arm because the goal. “It was my payback for convincing Willie to do a science experiment while trying to summit Everest,” Moniz says.
Both Moniz and Benegas have been accumulating their blood—with the “vampire kit,” as they nicknamed it—as a part of an bold new research that goals to grasp the genetic modifications that happen at excessive altitude. To differentiate between the modifications brought on by the climbers’ time on Everest final May and, say, the conventional on a regular basis modifications of growing older, scientists will examine the duo’s genetic code over time towards the final word management topics: the climbers’ twins. Moniz’s fraternal twin, Kaylee, and Benegas’ equivalent twin, Damian, supplied blood samples from their properties at or close to sea stage.
“We know that time spent at high elevation will, for example, cause the body to produce more red blood cells to carry more oxygen,” says lead scientist Christopher E. Mason, PhD, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics. “What we don’t know is what’s happening at the detailed molecular level—which genes are creating that adaptation, which genes are responding to that stress, which genes are activated specifically when you climb the world’s tallest mountain?”
From Moniz’s and Benegas’ hard-earned blood samples, Mason will extract DNA, RNA, and plasma, the parts wanted to doc every mountaineer’s genetic code, utilizing subtle biomedical and laptop know-how. This genetic code determines how an individual’s physique makes cells and the way these cells reply and adapt to the setting.
Mason took the same method when engaged on the 2017 NASA Twins Study. For that analysis, Mason in contrast the genetic code of astronaut Scott Kelly, after he spent 1 yr dwelling on the International Space Station, to the genetic code of Kelly’s equivalent twin brother, Mark, an astronaut who remained on Earth as a management topic. One of the early takeaways from that research is that Kelly’s “DNA repair genes” activated throughout his time in house, indicating that his physique was experiencing ongoing injury, almost certainly from the heavy improve in radiation publicity. “We learned that there are indeed what you could call ‘space genes’ activated from the stressors of space travel,” Mason says.
Similarly, Mason suspects there are additionally “Everest genes.” That’s why international mountaineers can’t practice themselves into the identical stage of health as a Sherpa. The benefit Sherpas have on Everest isn’t simply sports activities physiology—it’s actually of their DNA. “Sherpas have an optimized genome that has evolved over thousands of years to create more red blood cells to be better at oxygen metabolism at extreme elevations,” Mason says. Being in a position to pinpoint the early adaptions occurring in these 2 climbers’ genetic codes whereas on Everest places us 1 step nearer to the day when all climbers will be capable of edit their genes to realize the identical genetic benefit on Everest as Sherpas. The extra fast objective is healthier understanding of the genetic modifications our our bodies endure in excessive circumstances, however Mason is optimistic concerning the long-term prospects. “It’s still too early to say when,” he says. “It’s the early days for our understanding of such evolutionary selection and individual adaptations, but they light the way toward fundamental understanding of and protection for future climbers.”
For the Everest research, Mason is within the mountaineers’ microbiomes—the micro organism, fungi, viruses, and single-celled organisms that reside in and across the human physique, which scientists now know play almost as vital a task in how our genes are expressed because the genetic code itself. While on Everest, and earlier than and after the climb, Benegas and Moniz swabbed the within of their nostrils and the pores and skin on their faces and picked up fecal samples. Mason intends to make use of cells from the samples to chart the climbers’ microbiomes, creating an enormous record of which species have been discovered, what number of, when, and the place within the physique. “It’s like taking a microbial census,” Mason says. It’s potential he’ll establish beforehand unknown microorganisms interacting with the human physique on Everest.
While serving as lab rats on Everest was a brand new expertise for Moniz and Benegas, they’re no strangers to excessive environments. Benegas, 50, is the co-founder of Benegas Brothers Expeditions, a famend guiding firm. He had a dozen Everest summits on his in depth climbing résumé earlier than incomes his 13th in the course of the experiment. Moniz, 20, a scholar at Dartmouth College, started climbing at a remarkably younger age. He summited Mount Elbrus and Mount Kilimanjaro by age ten and earned National Geographic Adventurer of the Year honors at age 12 for summiting the very best factors in every of the 50 states. Moniz and Benegas first met on Mount Rainier in 2012 and have been climbing collectively ever since. Prior to the Everest experiment, they’d climbed 2 different 8,000-meter Himalayan peaks collectively: Makalu and Cho Oyu.
The greatest problem for Moniz and Benegas on Everest proved to not be drawing blood (which they did at Base Camp, Camp II, and again at Base Camp instantly after summiting). Instead, it was the logistics of getting their laboratory specimens off the mountain in the course of the expedition. They had a 48-hour window from the time of assortment for his or her organic samples to reach in Kathmandu and be centrifuged and frozen at minus 80 levels Celsius. “It was aggressive but possible, as long as everything went exactly as planned,” Moniz says.
To make the deadline, Moniz and Benegas made their collections within the early morning, nicely earlier than the infamous afternoon climate rolls in, which generally grounds all helicopter flights to and from Everest. They positioned the vials in a particular assortment field designed to maintain them upright, after which despatched the field with one of many helicopters on its method again to the village of Lukla after it delivered meals and provides to the mountain. A colleague picked up the pattern field from the airstrip in Lukla and transferred it to a fixed-wing airplane for departure to Kathmandu, the place one other colleague picked it up and drove it to the lab for processing.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without years of experience on Everest, without the network of friends who were really excited about what we were doing and willing to help us any way they could,” Benegas says.
Mason is at the moment ready for the cargo of specimens from Kathmandu, the place they’ve been held up for a number of weeks within the freezer because the required paperwork goes via—correct protocol when conducting scientific analysis on reside people. As for the individuals, Benegas says the Everest twins research marks his official retirement from the world’s tallest peak. Moniz, in the meantime, is simply getting began and hopes to proceed mixing science and high-altitude mountaineering—though he’d desire to not must cope with the vampire equipment once more.