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I recently learned about the concept of "affinity" in regards to hemoglobin. For hemoglobin in humans, carbon dioxide has a lower affinity than oxygen, which allows gas exchange to occur in our lungs.

Carbon monoxide is problematic for us because it has an even higher affinity to hemoglobin than oxygen does. This means that our red blood cells will not exchange carbon monoxide for oxygen in our lungs.

My question is: for high-altitude-adapted organisms such as the bar-headed goose, whose hemoglobin has a higher affinity to oxygen than ours does, is carbon monoxide still poisonous?

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As carbon monoxide binds to the same place in the heme as oxygen, I would expect that. The question is if the difference between a "normal" hemoglobin molecule and one from a altitude adapted bird does really matter. –  Chris Jun 20 at 15:32
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I don't know about the makeup of bar-headed goose haemoglobin, but fetal haemoglobin (HbF) has a higher affinity for oxygen and a lower binding of carbon monoxide than HbA (bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/content/bloodjournal/33/1/…). If the goose haemoglobin behaves similarly it may also have lower affinity for carbon monoxide. –  Spinorial Jun 20 at 15:50

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My question is: for high-altitude-adapted organisms such as the bar-headed goose, whose hemoglobin has a higher affinity to oxygen than ours does, is carbon monoxide still poisonous?

Yes. To put out a few other facts from the Stritch School of Medicine:

CO has 250 times the affinity for hemoglobin than O2
Hb becomes 100% saturated with CO at PCO = 0.6 mm Hg
Hb becomes 100% saturated with O2 at PO2 = 600 mm Hg 

What does that mean? Well, that means that when the partial pressure of CO is 1mmHg, you're well and truly dead. So if the bar headed goose could survive in an environment more than 1% CO its hemoglobin would have to bind to molecular oxygen very, very tightly below 1mmHg. If this was true you would expect their binding curve to reach a high % of O2 saturation below a partial pressure of 1mmHg. Does it exhibit that?

Bird hemoglobin binding curves

Nope. At 1mmHg (remember, CO has 100% binding at 0.6mmHg) the bar headed goose hemoglobin's saturation is less than 2%. In fact, they're pretty similar to humans:

Human hemoglobin curve

Is this casual glance conclusive? Well... Not entirely. I couldn't find any carbon monoxide data for the bar headed goose, but to overcome the 250x higher affinity for CO the goose's hemoglobin would have to be very, very different from that of humans while still exhibiting a similar binding curve. I've not received the education to determine if that's possible or how it would occur, but it is a very remote possibility.

Erring on the side of "most likely", however, I think it's safe to say that given a room filled with 1% CO you'd end up eventually killing anything that relied on hemoglobin to move necessary oxygen to tissues.

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Do you have references for your images and graphs? –  MattDMo Jun 20 at 16:48

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