Athletes and Their DNA

Athletes and Their DNA

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 4, 2007 in DNA Testing, Genetic Engineering

If I were given a choice between gene therapy for mental or athletic prowess, I would choose mental prowess without a thought. Not being a natural born athlete has biased me towards thinking that brains outrank brawn. But for many people, athletics are just as important as academics if not more so. Many promising young athletes are tempted by the boost anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs give them. Once genetic enhancements are available, we spectators may get to see some pretty spectacular sporting competitions.

Athletes have already been the focus of studies seeking to understand the genetic underpinnings of physical abilities. As many as 500 genes and DNA markers may be associated with athletic performance and health-related fitness. Scientists have bioengineered mice with larger-than-average muscles by knocking out the myostatin gene (these mice have been knicknamed ”Schwarzenegger mice”).

It’s hard to determine what athletes are allowed to do to improve their abilities without being called a “cheat.” If we expect them to rely on their natural born abilities, should they not engage in any vigorous training or take vitamin supplements? Maybe only children who’ve never received any real coaching are true athletes. Michael J. Sandel wrote in The Atlantic (subscription only) that because natural, inborn talents differ, there’s no such thing as fairness in sports. So, drug/gene doping in sports would not necessarily lead to a new disparity between those who have access and those who don’t (think industrialized vs developing countries at the Olympics).

At the Cheltenham Science Festival this week, there will be a session on genetic testing or manipulation to enhance sports led by professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, Greg Whyte. He believes athletes in many sports have reached the limits of innate human ability. In a Times UK article, Diving Into The Gene Pool, it was suggested that scientists would control the fate of athletes by predicting who would be the winner based on “performance genes.”

track and field

They’ve got to be kidding, right? Even world class sprinters can fall and trip in a race. Anyone remember Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics? As awesome as someone’s genes and physical abilities may be, environment still intervenes. An unfamiliar arena, bad weather, injury, flu, and all manner of other events out of an athlete’s and his/her coach’s control can and do determine the outcome of a sporting event. Think Tanya Harding.

It’s tempting to think we can genetically engineer superhumans in the manner of Heroes. But as Laura once said to me, “Science fiction is FICTION!!!!!”

Update: John Hawks points to an article in the New York Times on the use of gene therapy drug Repoxygen in sports training. Originally designed for use in treating anemia, Repoxygen could become one of the ways in which athletes use gene therapy to boost their endurance and stamina.

Update 2: Carol Torgan at  Body Shop reported on Genes and Sports Medicine as discussed at the 54th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Tags: , , , , , , , , genetic engineering



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Comment by Hsien

(An old post of mine….)


The Taipei Physical Education College (TPEC) plans to collect the saliva of exceptional (Taiwanese) athletes, like New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, so that their DNA can be analyzed for super-athletic genes. The TPEC Ace Athlete Genome Bank already has DNA from Taiwanese athletes who’ve won Olympic medals. Taekwondo fighter Chen Shi-Hsin has been found to have the insertion (I) polymorphism of the angiotensin converting enzyme gene (ACE), typically found in male athletes. ACE plays a role in regulating blood pressure and fluid-electrolyte balance.

Professor Hsu Tai-Ke wants to use genetic analysis to identify other children who have the potential become a “second Wang Chien-Ming.” Such a simplistic view of the genome and human behavior. I’m guessing Chien-Ming Wang’s parents (who’re biologically his aunt and uncle) would like to think they had some influence over his success in baseball. And his coaches would probably like to claim some credit too. Chien-Ming knows more than anyone that we’re more than just our genes:

In Taiwan there’s a saying: ‘Raising a child is more important than giving birth. Raising a child is greater.’

Comment by Keith Robison

Athletes would probably be better served by having available comprehensive screening for genetic disorders that might impair their health during athletic events. Marfan’s syndrome is the most famous in this light, since it claimed volleyball athlete Flo Hyman, but there will certainly be an increasing number of such markers found.

Comment by Hsien

Good point, Keith.

FYI for everyone, DNA testing is already being performed on athletes for some sports, such as the NBA. Eddie Curry was asked by the Chicago Bulls to undergo a DNA test for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy before he could play.

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

Are psychological variables not included in this? I was under the impression that psychological factors greatly contributed to performance outcomes (almost as much as the physical attributes).

By the way, I proudly stand behind my statement :D

Comment by Hsien

Oh, yes. Of course you’re right, Laura. Yet again. ;)

I wonder if athletes take drugs for performance anxiety like some classical musicians?

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

I am very aware of the beta blocker situation for classical musicians. And truthfully, I think its horrible.

Doctors were prescribing beta blocker meds to my fellow music students in university.

If you are having performance anxiety playing in front of other students (and not actual audiences) then guess what….performance should not be your career choice.

If your hands shake so badly, or you have problems breathing so you cant reach that ‘C’
then maybe check out some other line of work.

Is it really worth being on meds to go on stage?

Teachers recommending students to go on beta blockers?? This unfortunately is not unusual. Many students that I studied alongside were on these meds either because their teacher was, or because the teacher recommended that they do so. It’s sickening. But very common. All you need is one doctor to hand out slips, in a small university town.

Maybe teachers should start introducing meditation into their lessons, that might give an actual tool that students can rely on!

Now most of my own students are not quite at the stage to experience that kind of anxiety. They still love to show off! But if any of them did, we would work together to find a natural solution. I won’t be driving them to my doctor. I would rather they sit that performance out.

Thanks Hsien, for getting me all fired up this morning. I believe my coworkers are going to find me to be a little ummm passionate this morning.

Comment by Hsien

You go, girl!

I suffered from a bit of performance anxiety when I was playing piano and violin competitively years ago. But I think the cause of my anxiety was lack of practice. :P I do hope musicians who are offered beta blockers are also given other ways of dealing with their anxiety.

Comment by jhay

Laura does have a point. Psychology still has an influence. You may have all the genetic traits of a great athlete, but if you lack the will, it’s pretty much useless. ;)

Comment by Hsien

So basically you’re saying that we must get off our ass. That must be why I’m not a world class athlete. hahahhaaa

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

OK one last thing.

If you need to take something (beta blocker, steroid , whatever) to enhance your “art”.

Your “art” is fake!

Comment by Hsien

Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, Laura. What about all those artists with mental illness? Should they forego treatment just to say they’ve created “real” art? Art is subjective regardless of the creator’s mental or physical state.

Comment by Steven Murphy MD

Tell that to Kary Mullis ;) Does that make PCR fake?

Comment by Hsien

LOL Not everybody knows what you’re referring to, Steve. Here’s an excerpt from Kary Mullis’s book about his “experiment” with LSD.


[...] fact is, Hsien lured me into an  interesting discussion about performance enhancing drugs, and this was solely responsible for my surge of energy.   The discussion happened in the early [...]

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

I found an interview from Rolling Stone with John Lennon. He is asked whether LSD has affected his conception of music.

His response:

It was only another mirror. It wasn’t a miracle. It was more of a visual thing and a therapy, looking at yourself a bit. It did all that. You know, I don’t quite remember. But it didn’t write the music. I write the music in the circumstances in which I’m in, whether it’s on acid or in the water

Whether the drugs wrote the music or not, it gave him another angle to write from. One that would probably never have been discovered had he had not been taking LSD.

The drug was an “enhancement”, and while I am not disputing the fact that Lennon was a genius. Would he have still been regarded as much of one, if LSD or any other drug had not entered the picture. Or would The Beatles have produced songs like “Love Me Do” for their whole existence as a band.

Mental illness is an interesting issue. I would be interested to study the differences of an artist (who suffers from mental illness) and creates when they have been treated with meds, and when they haven’t been treated. I bet there is a big difference. And would these artists consider what they are creating as “art”, when meds are a factor.

Comment by Hsien

Have you been watching Heroes? There’s a character who is able to paint the future only if he’s high….

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

I’ll have to check this show out.


[...] Dr. Barry Star at the QUEST Community Science Blog looks at athletes and gene doping. Here’s my look at the situation – Athletes and Their DNA. [...]


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