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10th Jun 2024

Mutated tribe develops new gene that allows them to swim underwater for up to five hours

Callum Boyle

Sea nomad gene

The tribe have developed a ‘sea nomad gene’

A tribe in Indonesia have become the first known humans to actively adapt to diving by developing a ‘sea nomad gene’.

The Bajau tribe have lived off the coasts of Indonesia for over 1,000 years on houseboats, spending a large part of daily life in the sea.

Having been surrounded by water they have naturally become highly skilled at free diving and fishing with spears and have subsequently gained incredible lung capacities and strong swimming capabilities.

Some members of the tribe can even swim as far down 230 feet and spend as long as five hours underwater using just a set of weights and a pair of wooden goggles.

Speaking to the BBC, Melissa Ilardo, from Cambridge University, said: “they dive repeatedly for eight hours a day, spending about 60 percent of their time underwater.”

While their skills have played a major role in helping, a unique style of genetic mutation known as the sea nomad gene has helped to aid their diving ability, as well as gaining extra large spleens.

When underwater the spleen contracts to inject oxygenated red blood cells into the circulation – which can up the oxygen in a human’s blood by nine percent.

Dr. Ilardo added: “There’s not a lot of information out there about human spleens in terms of physiology and genetics, but we know that deep diving seals, like the Weddell seal, have disproportionately large spleens.

“We believe that in the Bajau they have an adaptation that increases thyroid hormone levels and therefore increases their spleen size.

“It’s been shown in mice that thyroid hormones and spleen size are connected. 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.”

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