A long and productive history of studies at high altitude has demonstrated that chronic hypoxia plays a key role in the aetiology of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and pre-eclampsia. Susceptibility to altitude-associated IUGR varies among high-altitude populations in relation to their duration of altitude exposure, with multigenerational residents demonstrating one-third the birth weight fall present in shorter-resident groups. Higher uteroplacental blood flow during pregnancy in multigenerational high-altitude residents suggests that such population differences are due, at least in part, to differences in maternal vascular responses to pregnancy. We hypothesize that natural selection acting on hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF)-targeted or -regulatory genes has enabled maternal vascular adaptation to pregnancy in long-resident high-altitude groups. Preliminary evidence in support of this hypothesis demonstrates that the potent HIF-targeted vasoconstrictor, endothelin-1 (ET-1), is differentially regulated by pregnancy and chronic hypoxia in Andean vs European residents of high altitude. Andeans show the normal, pregnancy-associated fall in ET-1 levels previously reported at low altitude, whereas Europeans have higher ET-1 levels and little pregnancy-associated change, like pre-eclamptic women. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the ET-1 gene also differ in Andeans compared with low-altitude populations. We conclude that high altitude serves as an experiment of nature for elucidating genetic factors underlying susceptibility to complications of pregnancy and fetal life. Such studies may be important for identifying persons at risk for these complications at any altitude.
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Our appreciation is extended to the many subjects who have participated in our studies of pregnancy at high altitudes in Colorado, Peru, Tibet and Bolivia and to the technical staff at the Women's Health and Colorado High-Altitude Research Centers, the Bolivian High-Altitude Biology Institute, the Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology and the other sites which have cooperated with us in the past. We especially thank Ms Wendy MacCannell for her help with the preparation of this article and Rhonda Mouser for the conduct of the endothelin-1 assays. Grant support was provided by NIH TW01188, HL60131, HL14985.