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SPORTS GENES
DAVID EPSTEIN
May 17, 2010
WHO HAS THE SPEED GENE, AND WHO DOESN'T? HOW MUCH OF PERFORMANCE IS GENETIC? HOW DID EARLY HUMANS BECOME ATHLETES? AND CAN THE PERFECT ATHLETE BE GENETICALLY ENGINEERED?
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May 17, 2010

Sports Genes

WHO HAS THE SPEED GENE, AND WHO DOESN'T? HOW MUCH OF PERFORMANCE IS GENETIC? HOW DID EARLY HUMANS BECOME ATHLETES? AND CAN THE PERFECT ATHLETE BE GENETICALLY ENGINEERED?

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Remember the guy or girl in high school who just had it? He was all-everything at quarterback and high jump; she led the pitching rotation and was also the starting point guard. Naturals. Or were they?

Did Ken Griffey Jr. inherit good genes, or did he become a superstar because he grew up in a clubhouse? Or both? For the price of a family outing at the ballpark, some companies will tell you if you have a certain sports gene. I have the sprinter gene, for instance, and you probably have it too.

So are there really such things as sports genes? If there are, do only elite athletes have them, or do the pros separate themselves from the rest of us more by their work ethic? And the work ethic—is there a gene for that?

There's only one place to look.

THE GENETIC PLAYBOOK

AT THE CENTER of our every cell lies the twisting ladder of the double helix. A mere four molecules—adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine—pair off three billion times to make up our DNA, the instruction manual for our bodies. Twenty-five thousand sections of each DNA ladder are especially important. They are genes, and it is they that actually tell the body how to build itself.

In April 2003 an international consortium of scientists announced the completion of the Human Genome Project. After 13 years of work (and 200,000 years of modern man), the project had mapped the human genome; all 25,000 regions of DNA that contain genes had been identified. Now researchers knew where to begin looking for the biological foundations of many of our traits, from hair color to hereditary disease to athleticism.

But even if scientists know where the most important parts of the manual are located, they don't necessarily know how to read them. In fact, the precise functions of most genes, including many so-called sports-performance genes, remain mysterious, and thus talk of splicing DNA to create the perfect athlete is a bit premature.

Already, though, scientific research gives us a fuller picture of how we evolved into athletes, and it suggests that some things that appear to be largely genetic (such as East African dominance of distance running) might not be, and that other things that seem entirely voluntary (such as an athlete's will to train) might in fact have an important genetic component.

Scientific studies that associate particular genes with athleticism are published literally every month. These genes exist, in differing versions, in all of us, from All-Pro to average Joe. As the study of performance genes accelerates, more assumptions about sports and genetics will no doubt prove false, and new answers will reshape our view of why and how some people become NFL running backs or Olympic swimmers while others struggle to pass phys ed.

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