Milk with Altitude

Schooners at Sunset

Marco! Polo! Marco! Marco! Mark, are you alright? Polo! Mom, I’m OK.

I have never traveled the Silk Road, like Marco Polo did. I have never sailed the seven seas. I haven’t even been to Katmandu, like last night’s lecturers. Science on Tap reconvened after a long hiatus and we were all in attendance. EA Quinn and Geoff Childs, both Washington University professors were our speakers. They had been to Katmandu and beyond and they told us of their work. First they had to deal with some A/V devils. Light electrical work compared to fanning an over heating generator or holding up on the roof solar panels to generate juice. Both examples of hardships that research in Nepal entails. Enough of the Indy Jones intro, on to the science, in this case anthropology.

Their NSF funded study at the intersection of biology and culture in the Himalayas centered upon the effects of altitude on mother’s milk. Nubri, near the Tibetan border was the area of their research. Katmandu is the big city where their young people go for an education compared to this place. Travel is by foot or donkey. Although, a helicopter was utilized to transport the liquid nitrogen that was used to preserve the milk samples. Samples that once back in the lab were analyzed for composition along three lines:

  • Macronutrients and Energy (Yes)
  • Metabolic Hormones (No)
  • Immune Factors (No)

The parenthetical yes and no neatly summarize their findings. Yes, they were able to find differences in milk composition that correlated with altitude or no they did not. 69 mother-infant dyads participated in the study. Nutrients were further broken out into sugars and protein, which were normal and fats, which were the highest ever seen. The daily infant intake translated into an extra 10 grams/day of fat or +110 calories/day than what a sea level infant would get.

The Q&A session was as always also interesting. For example, while cow’s milk production decreases with altitude, yak’s milk production increases with altitude. Quinn and Childs were reporting from an earlier completed NSF study. One that they leveraged into their current study, which since it is still ongoing, they were not willing to report on. They hinted though of revelations to come.