a his & hers weblog of worlds apart
The ultimate Nature vs. Nurture debate
The 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.