• Question: Do airline pilots have more haemoglobin?

    Asked by yourmum to Meeks, Pete, Stephen, Steve, Tom on 22 Jun 2010 in Categories: .
    • Photo: Stephen Curry

      Stephen Curry answered on 17 Jun 2010:

      Fascinating question! I think they *may* do – as one of the ways that the body responds to being at high altitude where there is less oxygen. However, one thing I am more certain about is that they will have higher levels of a molecule known as bisphosphoglyverate (BPG) in their blood. BPG can stick to haemoglobin and changes its affinity for oxygen – if BPG levels rise, your haemoglobin is better at binding oxygen and allows your blood to grab more oxygen from the air in your lungs.

      People wanting to climb high mountains need to spend a few days at high altitude before making their final assault on the summit – in order to ‘acclimatise’. What is happening during this period is that the body is making more BPG which increases the oxygen affinity of haemoglobin and allows you to survive.

      Thinking about it a bit more, there may be less of a change in pilots since the interior of an airplane is pressurised – the atmosphere is more like what you have at ground level, even if the plane is high up.

      Thanks for asking this question – learning about the intricate mechanisms of oxygen binding by haemoglobin (which were revealed by protein crystallography done by a hero of mine – Max Perutz) was what inspired me to get into kind of research!

    • Photo: Tom Hartley

      Tom Hartley answered on 17 Jun 2010:

      I’m afraid I just looked this one up on Google – and top of the list I found this page which rings true:


      but I don’t know if the “naked scientists” know any more about it than me (fully clothed you’ll be pleased to hear).

    • Photo: Marieke Navin

      Marieke Navin answered on 22 Jun 2010:

      I don’t know! but during a quick google I have found probably not since the planes are not flying very high (equivalently speaking because of the pressure in the cabin) and the exposure is short.