Saturday, February 7, 2009

What Does Your Deoxyribonucleic Acid Say About You?

Whether you're a sprinter or a long-distance runner, researchers from the Australian Institute of Sport, the University of Sydney, and the Australian National University now claim they can determine if you're likely to be successful - or unsuccessful - in your sport. Genetic labs like Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder, Colorado now offer such testing, aimed primarily at children 8 years old and younger, for the price of $149.

The genetic variation they search for is that of the ACTN3 gene, otherwise known as the "speed gene." This gene is thought to determine an individual's natural predisposition for endurance, speed, or a combination of both sports. ACTN3 causes the production of a protein, alpha-actinin-3, that regulates a greater function of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are very engaged in speed and power sports.

Atlas Sports Genetics even claims, "In fact, one study found that every Olympic sprint athlete tested had at least one copy of the normal R577 version of the ACTN3 gene (Therefore produced the muscle alpha-actin-3 protein)."

There also haven't been any findings that suggest the absence of this protein adversely affects health, despite its possible athletic implications.

However, despite the many correlations between certain genetic traits associated with athletic ability among elites, the exception of a two-time-Olympian Spanish long jumper, who lacks the ACTN3 gene, attests to the reality that genes cannot entirely promote or deter athletic success.

Unfortunately, although genes cannot pigeon-hole a child into certain sports, parents and guardians can. Those who order the ACTN3 test are sent a kit in which they swab the inside of their child's cheek and send the sample back to the lab. An article in the New York Times reports, "The analysis takes two to three weeks, and the results arrive in the form of a certificate announcing Your Genetic Advantage, whether it is in sprint, power and strength sports; endurance sports; or activity sports (for those with one copy of each variant, and perhaps a combination of strengths). A packet of educational information suggests sports that are most appropriate and what paths to follow so the child reaches his or her potential."

Beyond indicating whether one's muscles are more suited for speed or endurance, I see nothing special that this test offers. If anything, it might prevent little Johnny from pursuing his passion for football because he lacks the R577X variant in both copies of his DNA, making his muscles more suited for endurance rather than speed/power sports. Parents might interpret test results in a rigid manner and push a child into the sports that, although their tot's DNA indicates they have potential in, the child may have no desire to compete.

I think Dr. Carl Foster, quoted in the New York Times, said it best. To determine if a child will be good at sprint and power sports, “Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest."

Would I pay $149, after I have discovered my passion for long-distance running, to potentially find out that my genes do not share the same love for my sport of choice? Certainly not. I don't care what my genes say I am predisposed to, because I'd like to think my mind and hard work can overpower the presence, or lack thereof, of this little protein. I will reach the highest fitness I possibly can, even if I will never become an elite marathoner. Like the Spanish Olympian, I believe I can surpass any genetic obstacles and make my own success.

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