Evolved increases in hemoglobin-oxygen affinity and the Bohr effect coincided with the aquatic specialization of penguins

Anthony V. Signore, Michael S. Tift, Federico G. Hoffmann, Todd L. Schmitt, Hideaki Moriyama, Jay F. Storz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Dive capacities of air-breathing vertebrates are dictated by onboard O2 stores, suggesting that physiologic specialization of diving birds such as penguins may have involved adaptive changes in convective O2 transport. It has been hypothesized that increased hemoglobin (Hb)-O2 affinity improves pulmonary O2 extraction and enhances the capacity for breath-hold diving. To investigate evolved changes in Hb function associated with the aquatic specialization of penguins, we integrated comparative measurements of whole-blood and purified native Hb with protein engineering experiments based on site-directed mutagenesis. We reconstructed and resurrected ancestral Hb representing the common ancestor of penguins and the more ancient ancestor shared by penguins and their closest nondiving relatives (order Procellariiformes, which includes albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, and storm petrels). These two ancestors bracket the phylogenetic interval in which penguin-specific changes in Hb function would have evolved. The experiments revealed that penguins evolved a derived increase in Hb-O2 affinity and a greatly augmented Bohr effect (i.e., reduced Hb-O2 affinity at low pH). Although an increased Hb-O2 affinity reduces the gradient for O2 diffusion from systemic capillaries to metabolizing cells, this can be compensated by a concomitant enhancement of the Bohr effect, thereby promoting O2 unloading in acidified tissues. We suggest that the evolved increase in Hb-O2 affinity in combination with the augmented Bohr effect maximizes both O2 extraction from the lungs and O2 unloading from the blood, allowing penguins to fully utilize their onboard O2 stores and maximize underwater foraging time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2023936118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - Mar 30 2021


  • Adaptation
  • Bohr effect
  • Hemoglobin
  • Hypoxia
  • Penguins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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