Genes in Sport
We have often heard or used the phrase “sport, it’s in your DNA”, yet when it comes to sport, this could be true. Sport is ever-evolving, and with that, so is the notion of sport science. Sport science is delving deeper and deeper into unearthing and developing elite sporting talent. In relation to DNA and genes, sport science is pushing the boundaries with regards to its research and exploring what possibilities it holds. Firstly, it’s important to understand what exactly makes up our DNA, and how this is important for sport.
What is DNA
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. It carries the genetic information in the body’s cells and is made up of 4 similar chemicals. A gene is a distinct portion of a cell’s DNA. Genes are coded instructions for making everything the body needs. Researchers have discovered what many of the body’s genes actually do, however there are still some genes whose function remains unknown. DNA is sometimes called “the blueprint of life” because it contains the code, or instructions for building an organism and ensuring that the organism functions correctly. Put simply, DNA and genes are the building blocks of humans, and can influence how they grow and develop.
DNA and athletic performance
So why is this important for sport? According to Dr. Alun Williams, Director of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Sports Genomics Laboratory, scientific evidence suggests that athletic ability is dependent on both genetic and environmental factors. He claims that having “favorable genes” will go a long way to creating world champions. These findings are evident when one looks at past trends of Olympic winners. Long distance running, for instance, has long been dominated by athletes of East African descent, sprinting dominated by those with West African origins and weight-lifting and other strength and power oriented sports by Caucasians. Their success is determined both by the fact that they have the correct genetic variation to make them excel at a particular sport and in addition their training and environmental conditions are molding them into record breakers. In Is athletic performance determined by genetics?, the authors outline that athletic performance is a complex trait that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. However, studies focused on similarities and differences in athletic performance within families, including between twins, suggest that genetic factors underlie 30 to 80 percent of the differences among individuals in traits related to athletic performance.
Certain ‘favorable’ genes give rise to certain physical characteristics which, when combined with correct training and a healthy lifestyle, give certain players an added advantage over others. The gene ‘ACTN3’ is commonly referred to as ‘the gene for speed’. In ACTN3: More than Just a Gene for Speed, Craig Pickering and John Kiely review 19 studies relating to performance phenotypes. They conclude that there is a clear, undoubted impact of genetics on both sporting performance and exercise adaptation and that ACTN3, one of the most well-studied genes, has been reliably shown to impact speed-power and strength phenotypes.
In the modern sporting era, some clubs and coaches are attempting to examine athlete DNA in the hope of analyzing whether they are getting the most out of their genes. For example, 2 unnamed FA Premier League clubs along with Great Britain Athlete Jenny Meadows are examples of elite athletes looking at their own DNA make-up to determine whether certain genes are providing the best results possible in relation to certain areas – power, endurance, speed of recovery and susceptibility to injury as well as tolerance to various food types such as carbohydrates or saturated fats. England’s squad for the 2014 World Cup had their DNA analysed to help develop specialized training programs.
The future of cheating in sport
There is a thin line between what DNA testing can reveal, and what may be construed as “unethical” practices. Some companies are offering parents certain DNA tests which they claim determine what sport their child would be best suited to – potentially taking away the opportunity for some children to partake in other sports. Moving up a level from this is the idea of altering DNA. This is carried out by endowing a patient with a gene that increases extra erythropoietin (EPO). This in turn increases the production of red blood cells that allows for more stamina during training and competition.
In Genetic doping: WADA we do about the future of ‘cheating’ in sport? the concept of ‘gene doping’ is discussed. This is emerging as a serious threat to fair play in sport and any such procedures have been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency since 2003. In 2018 WADA extended its 2003 ban on “gene doping” to include all forms of gene editing – but it is not clear the agency has the means to enforce this ban. While Gene replacement therapy gives the cells a new, working copy of the missing or nonworking gene, gene editing acts like a ‘find and replace’ technique for specific pieces of a person’s existing DNA. Gene editing is even harder to detect than conventional gene therapies. Tiny alternations can be made to DNA in existing genes, the activity of some genes can be temporarily switched off or some tweaks can be restricted to muscle tissues and these changes are not always detectable in blood tests.
Unlocking secrets about an elite athlete’s DNA could hold the key for enhancing athletic performance in the future, however clubs and researchers must be careful not to overstep the mark when investigating this human aspect, as there is a thin line between what is right and what is wrong. Genetic testing is here to stay and millions of people make use of consumer DNA tests every year. Among the 3 billion genetic building blocks that make up a person, only a tiny number are unique to one individual – in fact 99.9% of you is the same as the person next to you. The remaining 0.1% results in all the variances across the human population. There is no doubt that DNA testing and DNA editing/therapies will play a major role in the future but genes only play one part in developing athletic potential – like everything else in life balance and perspective is important – the right lifestyle and environmental factors will always play their part. The Nature vs Nurture debate continues.
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