a his & hers weblog of worlds apart

GenoHype! Genetics and Athleticism

The ultimate Nature vs. Nurture debate

boltThe world of professional sports is littered with examples of athletes who defy the laws of natural science and make human marvels seem effortless. Take Usain Bolt, for example. The 6’4″ Jamaican sprinter not only made history by breaking both the 100m and 200m record in the same Olympic games, but his laid back attitude and gesturing made it seem easy.

So, what is known about genetics and athletic ability? In searching the published literature, it is clear that there is a huge amount of research into gene variants and athletic prowess. Most of these studies involve mouse models and have not yet been clearly translated to human athletic performance. There is one exception, that has been replicated by several different researchers in different populations: The ACTN3 gene, or the “sprinting gene” as it has been dubbed by the media. Basically, studies have shown that olympic athletes are more likely to have a particular ACTN3 variant in these genes, over non-elite athletes.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by this New York Times article that ran yesterday. The article features Atlas Sports Genetics, a company that is currently offering genetic testing for the ACTN3 gene, and are marketing the test specifically towards children. In their words “knowing what a person is born with can ensure they develop into the best athlete they can be.”

Strangely enough, I just finished reading the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in which he deconstructs the notion that professional athletes are simply gifted with natural athletic ability, but are rather conditioned for athletic prowess through a combination of chance (e.g. what month one happens to be born in), circumstance (e.g. being in the right place at the right time) and practice (approximately 10,000 hours).

A certain amount of athletic ability is innate. However, ACTN3 represents one out of potentially hundreds or thousands of genes that contribute to natural athletic ability. Take these hundreds of gene variants and couple them with a child’s physical and social environment and personal experiences, and looking at the ACTN3 variant on its own seems somewhat inconsequential to a child’s athletic development. Consequently, making decisions based on this gene variant alone seems absurd.  

Kids play sports, because sports are fun.

I while ago I posted about the need for the genetics community to at least recognize some of the cool and recreational aspects of the field. In some capacity, I think there is an opportunity for genetic testing of ACTN3 to fall into the realm of recreational genetics.  However, in my opinion Atlas Sports Genetics has got it wrong. This information should not be used in children, and should not be used to guide parents decisions about their children’s recreational time.

Even though research has shown an association between athletes and an particular ACTN3 variant, I find it hard to believe that a parent would want to determine their child’s athletic path based on the results of a genetic test. I would hope that a child’s personality, desires, likes and dislikes would take precedence over a genetic test result. I can’t help but think that genetic testing for “athletic genes” in kids will only serve to undermine the most fundamental purpose of sport and play: fun.

2 comments on “GenoHype! Genetics and Athleticism

  1. Andrew Yates
    December 4, 2008

    “I can’t help but think that genetic testing for “athletic genes” in kids will only serve to undermine the most fundamental purpose of sport and play: fun.”

    I disagree because the problem is that the entire premise of this debate is bogus. The ACTN3 test has no useful predictive value, and that is quite clearly not how it is marketed. This is such an obvious submarine, and even the most casual background research reveals that Atlas is doing nothing interesting, important, useful, or even ethical.

    I’m thoroughly disgusted that the NYTs (Juliet Macur) would print something as bogus like “What if my son could be a pro football player and I don’t know it?” Oh yes, you put it “quotes.” Oh, never mind, Juliet, I guess you’ve “absconded” from all “accountability” in your cunning “scare quotes” escape.

    The _existence_ of the debate is as bogus as the “debate” between Intelligent Design and … science, and to pretend otherwise in the guise of reporting a “balanced” story is total bollocks.

  2. alliejanson
    December 4, 2008


    “The ACTN3 test has no useful predictive value, and that is quite clearly how it is marketed.”

    I couldn’t agree more. But Atlas is certainly not the first company to market a genetic test that lacks predictive value.

    The point I was trying to make (perhaps not as clearly as I could have) is that even when you remove the issue of predictive value, the notion that a parent would choose a path for their child’s (or toddler’s!) recreational time based on the results of a single genetic test seems inherently wrong.

    When you add the lack of clinical validity and the thousands of other subtle genetic, environmental and social influences, the entire concept becomes absurd. I was also shocked by the positive light that the NYT’s article shed on this company and their “product.”

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