The dilemma of testing for genetic sporting traits

by Krysia Collyer on April 13, 2009

A parent’s dream for their child is a powerful thing. Ask any parent and they will tell you that theirs is the smartest, most gifted child they have ever seen. While that may be true, some parents are going out of their way to prove that fact. Through a commercially available genetics test, parents are now able to find out what types of sports their kids are predisposed for — either endurance or power sports.

When Alison Korn, a former Canadian Olympic rower, first heard about this type of testing, it wasn’t her kids she was thinking about testing, it was herself.

Turning to an industry that has been gaining popularity over the past five years, the two-time Olympic winner, couldn’t help but be curious to find out whether rowing was truly in her “genes.”

“I just kind of wondered what my genetic profile would be,” she said. “So, I sent away and they sent me a test.  This was four years ago, and it came back and it said I was suited for power/sprint sports.”

While she wasn’t surprised about the result, what she was surprised about was that rowing wasn’t even on the list.

“It was kind of funny because it didn’t even mention rowing,” she said, “so I scoffed at the test a bit.”

Alison Korn's advise to parents who are considering DNA-testing their children.

But turning their back on this kind of testing is certainly not an option for some parents in Boulder, Colorado.

Parents willing to shell out around US$149.00, are only one swab away from knowing which sports their child is suited for. The Boulder-based company, Atlas Sports Genetics, is playing to these sports-obsessed parents, allowing them to predict their child’s natural athletic strengths through DNA testing.

The power sport gene

The testing process is simple. A couple of swabs with a finely bristled brush inside the child’s cheek, and the DNA collection is done. The sample is then sent back to the lab for analysis. In a matter of weeks, the results will show whether the child would be best suited for endurance sports like distance running, or speed and power sports like football, or the combination of the two.

The gene scientists are testing for is called the alpha-actinin 3 gene (ACTN3). The gene is found within fast-twitching muscle fibers, allowing the body to generate force during intensive physical displays. Studies have shown that people who are tapped with having this gene are likely to excel in power sports like sprinting.

Understanding of these kinds of genetic links is continually evolving. Research like this is taking place at universities across the world, including at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Jim Rupert, a human kinetics Assistance Professor at UBC, is looking into the relationship between genetics and athletic performance. He said that when the ACTN3 study came out in 2003, it was the first time the science really provided a strong case for the role of genetics affecting athletic abilities.

“When the alpha-actinin gene paper came out in the American Journal of Human Genetics, it was noteworthy in that this was a gene that was involved in muscle,” he said.

The study identified a connection between ACTN3 and performance by looking at individual gene combinations. Those people who had a copy of the R variant of ACTN3 were able to produce a protein that was found exclusively in fast-twitching muscles. This would allow their muscles to move forcefully during speed and power sports. Others who were tapped with having two copies of the X variant were more likely to excel in endurance sports, as the X variant stops the production of the protein.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers looked at 429 elite athletes, of which 50 were Olympians. In the examination of the 107 sprint athletes who participated in the study, 50 percent of them had two copies of the R variant.

In Rupert’s view, the study suggested that the presence or absence of this gene, “would have an effect on physical performance”.

Sporting talent

With this in mind, Korn is now contemplating getting her children tested too.

“I started out saying, yeah, I don’t want to test my kids but I am curious, I will admit it and now they are almost five and I’m like, wow, I’m like I wonder if they are better sprinters or endurance athletes. But I am still holding back on it.”

She may be holding back but others aren’t. Ryan Blais, Canadian winter Olympic hopeful, thinks that genetically identifying kids is going to be the way of the future in sport.

“You’ll start to see sports that really specialize in the type of athletes that they ID. For example, you’ve seen it with Michael Phelps. Before his race he does this little thing with his arms, where his go way back there-he is double jointed in the shoulders. His body is really well suited for swimming.

“So you’ll start to see early on coaches are able to ID you have the perfect anatomy,” said Blais.

In a way he’s right, because this type of identification is already here.

Talent identification (TID) has become a key component for the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). This sports development firm uses physiological (genetics) and psychological tests to identify talent. Those who fit the “profile” are given access to top training facilities to enhance performance.

Although gene-based selection is still in its infancy, athletes like Blais still believe it is only a matter of time until this type of identification process will make it into the sport he loves.

“That hasn’t happened in freestyle aerials yet. There is tall guys, short guys, there is chubby guys, there is skinny guys. If you take a sport and fast forward 20-years, we’ll start to see that in order to spin quickly it is better to be slim, tall, with long arms to generate a lot of twist. So, I think those types of things will push sport.”

Ever wonder what anti-doping measures athletes have to go through? Watch as Canadian aerialist skier, Ryan Blais, explains the many different steps.

But Rupert doesn’t believe that all the answers for athletic performance lie in the genes.

“If you look at the numbers from the original study, you will still find people who were elite endurance athletes who had the non-endurance variance of the gene and people who were elite non-endurance athletes who had the endurance variant. It is not a 100 percent.”

It may not be an exact science because being an elite athlete is more than just having the perfect genes. Korn said that during her years of competing, it was those athletes who had the most passion and heart for the sport that had the athletic advantage.

“I was like one of the biggest athletes on the team but we always had a couple of smaller women in that boat who on paper shouldn’t of made the team because they weren’t big enough but they had that heart and they had this ability that let them beat out other bigger girls,” said Korn.

“I have seen it in my own career. There are these intangibles that you cannot measure in any way and it just comes out in your performance.”

While genetics testing may gear parents towards their kid’s natural athletic strengths, it is the training, determination and individual passion that makes a true champion. Until the day comes when those traits can be tested for, I wouldn’t place any bets on your kid being the next Usain Bolt.

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