The Himalayan cousin of the common cow holds the key to survival in cities such as Mumbai or Delhi where pollutants breathe your oxygen away.
Scientists at the National Research Centre on Yak (NRC-Y) are close to cracking the signature gene of the yak, the only animal comfortable in sub-zero conditions and at altitudes where oxygen level is 40% less than that in the plains.
NRC-Y, an Indian Council of Agriculture Research institute, was established in 1989 at Arunachal Pradesh’s Dirang located 327km west of state capital Itanagar. It focuses on the yak and the polyandrous brokpas, or yak farmers, along India’s Himalayan belt from Ladakh eastward.
The average oxygen content in air at sea level is 20% – almost half than in the age of dinosaurs – but the level in polluted cities is under 15%.
The outcome of the research on yak, researchers say, will be vital when oxygen levels fall below 12%. The yak can survive in 11%.
“Researchers in the west, envisaging a significant drop in ambient oxygen in the future, have found that cats and mice brought up on a diet of yak milk survive in low-oxygen lab conditions,” senior scientist Pranab Jyoti Das told HT.
“We began working on the yak’s genomic structure to find out what makes it survive extreme conditions of cold and breathability. We also have a long-term goal of finding the nutrients of the yak’s milk that will help people survive in low oxygen,” Das said.
The research, for the time being, is focused on adding yak milk to the diagnostic process for treating high-altitude sickness and hypoxia, a complication due to deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues in a human body.
NRC-Y researches believe further refinement in the study can insure people against asphyxiation or suffocation in scenarios such as post-Diwali smog in Delhi last year.
This belief comes from the diet of the nomadic brokpas who move with their herd of yaks at altitudes beyond 10,000ft. “Yak’s milk and milk products sustain the brokpas,” NRC-Y director SM Deb said.
The researchers have also factored in global studies on Tibetans revealing the highlanders have developed a special protein-producing gene that keep them at ease in the Himalayan terrain where others gasp for breath.
Besides milk, the work on genetic signature at NRC-Y covers everything else about the yak from its productivity to diseases. The idea is to produce genetically superior yaks for higher milk yield in the future when oxygen, rather the lack of it, drives demand.