Are elite athletes genetically programmed?

MICHELLE HENDERSON
Last updated 16:38 20/07/2012

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Are elite athletes genetically programmed to achieve? Australian researchers John Hawley and Dr Nir Eynon think this could be the case.

While there is currently no concrete evidence that good genes separate athletes from the rest of us, research is emerging to support the idea. 

A study underway will examine up to 3000 athletes from Australia, Europe, Africa and America to try and identify genes associated with performance. The research, led by Dr Eynon from Victoria University and Professor Kathryn North of Sydney University, will examine the entire human genome for genetic markers in elite performers, compared with the general population.

The study will also compare the findings from endurance runners with sprinters.

It expands on Ms North's discovery of a gene variant, called ACTN3, found to be present in sprinters. Despite this finding, Dr Eynon says it is only one gene and more need to be identified to provide evidence of a strong genetic link to elite athletic performance. "We cannot say for certain that there is a genetic component that separates elite athletes from the general population,"

Dr Eynon, from the university's Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (AECIAL), told AAP. "Every study that has been done so far was on a very small number of people which makes it very difficult to get to a solid conclusion."

However, he said environment was also most likely a factor along with any genetic predisposition. John Hawley, from RMIT University's exercise metabolism group at the School of Medical Sciences, agrees.

Children growing up in Africa for example, run everywhere, including to school.

Hawley has carried out studies measuring genes in the muscle that show people are more likely to respond to training than others.

The research involved 10 untrained but otherwise healthy males who were given a single exercise before a muscle biopsy was taken to measure the gene response. "Some people when we measured their genes after a single bout of exercise had an enormous response in a performance gene, yet others would completely flat line," he told AAP.

The group was then trained for 10 days and tested again. "What we found was that the first bout of exercise ... was very predictive of how they responded to the training program," Mr Hawley said. "We're actually measuring the genes in the muscle and we are finding that there are responders and non-responders, even though you might give them the same training program. "That has to be down to genetics," he says. "Where we are heading from this athletically is the prediction of athletic performance from a single genetic test. "We're not there yet, but it's coming." Mr Hawley will speak at the Human Genetics Society of Australasia annual meeting in Canberra next week.

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- AAP

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