DO YOU HAVE what it takes to be a topflight powerlifter? You could spend thousands of hours in the gym to find out. Or you could send a saliva sample and $92.40 to an Australian lab. For that price Genetic Technologies, a DNA-testing firm in Fitzroy, Australia, will tell you if you are carrying a variant of a gene called ACTN3, which scientists believe helps control a person's aptitude for sports that require explosive muscle movements. People who have a certain version of the gene are able to produce actinin, a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers. If your muscles are rich in actinin, you're more likely to be good at sports like weightlifting and sprinting than someone who lacks actinin.
In 2003 an international team of scientists studied the DNA of 107 top Australian sprint athletes. Ninety-five percent had actinin in their systems. Of 32 Olympians in the study, all had the ACTN3 version that produces actinin. Preliminary findings in a forthcoming study by University of Maryland kinesiology professor Stephen M. Roth suggest that most elite powerlifters—for example, 2004 Olympic gold medalist Hossein Reza Zadeh (left)—carry actinin too.
Some pro teams are taking notice. In 2005 the Manly Sea Eagles of Australia's National Rugby League began checking ACTN3 variants and tailoring training for players predisposed to more weightlifting. Someday such tests may be used by teams trying to decide which players to draft. Still, as Manly's team physiologist Steve Dank said then, "Gene tests don't measure the passion that makes players great." Not yet, anyway.