– Derek M. Hansen –
Recently, I have been looking at the latest research and findings related to the Human Genome project and how it would apply to the average person. There are now a number of new companies on the market that will take a sample of your DNA (through a generous saliva sample) and map your genome for a number of common diseases that are actionable (i.e. you can take preventative measures to reduce your risk factors). One company, Navigenics, will take your sample and develop your “Health Compass” to determine your “genetic predisposition for a variety of common health conditions, and the information, support and guidance to know what steps you can take to prevent, detect or diagnose them early.” The genetic testing service is provided for an initial $2,500 fee, with an ongoing subscription rate of $250 per year for continuous service.
For those of you that don’t know what a genome is, the Genome News Network provides a useful working definition:
“A genome is all of a living thing’s genetic material. It is the entire set of hereditary instructions for building, running, and maintaining an organism, and passing life on to the next generation.”
Deeper research into the human genome can theoretically give us insights into why some people die of heart disease and others die of cancer, why some people are extroverts and other people are introverts, why some people have fabulous singing voices and other people make you cringe during their karaoke renditions, and so on.
Of course, it made me think about a young person’s predisposition to various athletic abilities later in life. Lo and behold, the New York Times just came out with an article about genetic testing for young children to determine their potential for athletic greatness. The article, Born to Run: Little Ones Get Test for Sport Gene, by Juliet Macur, identifies the work by a new company, Atlas Sport Genetics, and the ongoing efforts of parents to ensure that their child is the next sports star. For a simple fee of $149 per test, parents can have their child’s DNA analyzed (through a cheek swab) in an effort to predict a their natural athletic strengths.
A study published in 2003, primarily done by Australian researchers, identified the connection between ACTN3 and elite athletic performance. The study looked at the gene’s combinations — one copy provided by each parent. The R variant of ACTN3 instructs the body to produce a protein, alpha-actinin-3, found specifically in fast-twitch muscles. Those muscles are capable of the forceful, quick contractions necessary in speed and power sports. The X variant prevents production of the protein.
This same study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50 Olympians. It found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R variant. It is important to note that no female elite sprinter had two copies of the X variant. All male Olympians in power sports had at least one copy of the R variant. Additionally, almost 25 percent of the elite endurance athletes had two copies of the X variant — only slightly higher than the control group at 18 percent — meaning people with two X copies are more likely to be suited for endurance sports.
While the DNA test performed by Atlas Sport Genetics seem simple there are many possible issues that are raised by such a process:
As with all issues of child education and development, the outcome is heavily dependent on the judgement and common sense of the parents. If parents do decide to go ahead and determine the athletic predisposition of their child, one hopes that it is simply to satisfy a burning curiosity and they will take the information with a grain of salt. I assume that some will haphazardly interpret the information as a road map to success for their child and try to get a head-start with early specialization. Strangely enough, this is happening already, without the genetic information at their disposal.
What parents really need to do to determine the chances of their child’s athletic success – just like you do with the family’s health history – is to look in the mirror and ask, “Was I fast, strong and powerful when I was an athlete?” If the answer for both father and mother was no, it’s very likely that your child may have to make their way into the headlines much like “Rudy” of Notre Dame football fame. If both parents were athletic talents, there’s a good chance your children will display some athleticism. In both cases, you might as well save yourself the $149 price tag. However, it should not change the way in which you introduce sport to your children. It should always involve a healthy dose of fundamentals, exposure to a wide range of sports and a emphasis on fun.