Genes are heritable units, made of a sequence of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contained in every cell of your body. They act as codes to produce proteins, and they play a major role in determining an individual’s predisposition toward athleticism. We all have two copies of each gene, one inherited from our dad and the other from our mom. Research has found that an athlete’s genes may determine 20-80% of his/her performance.
In 2003, a group of scientists from Australia demonstrated that ATCN-3 gene is closely related to athletic performance. ATCN-3 gene produces the protein α-actinin-3 expressed in fast-twitch muscle fibers and is responsible for generating force for high-velocity movement. Two alleles (or variants) of ACTN-3 have been found – the R allele and the X allele. Scientists have found that power athletes tend to have the R allele, while endurance athletes tend to have the X allele.
Another potential ‘sports’ gene with distinct allelic drifts between power and endurance athletes is the ACE gene. ACE activates a hormone angiotensin that regulates constriction of blood vessels, which in turn, controls the rate of blood flow through the circulatory system of your body. Thus, ACE activity regulates blood pressure and has an effect on cardiac health. ACE also helps retain salt-water in your body that allows cells to stay healthy and metabolize better to produce lots of energy.
Although training and exercise contribute to athletic excellence, genetic predisposition also steers one’s chance towards being the star athlete. Some national team coaches even think it is beneficial to have genetic testing done on the candidates during selection of team members. It may also be beneficial for athletes to have a basic knowledge of their genes, so that they know how to customize their diet or training to promote better health or performance.
Despite advances in the field of genetics, it is not wise to consider one’s athletic abilities to be dependent on only the variations of a single or a couple of genes. The way our physiology is maintained in response to a network of genes and genetic pathways is far more complex than we can imagine. Gene expression is an entire field of study that investigates all those factors that help the expression of a gene to produce the functional protein. There are instances where you have the correct gene variant on your DNA strand, but it does not get expressed. Studies of the ATCN3 gene in a famous Olympic long jumper show that he has no copies of the R variant, but still he is the star. There are lots of environmental factors like nutrition, coaching, careful planning and a disciplined lifestyle that play a major role in athletic ability.
By: Riddhita Chakraborty, University of Utah
Articles by Jamie Saunders.