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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kids should play sports, not genetics

Imagine this. You are 6 years old. Four weeks ago, Mommy and Daddy asked you to let them swab your cheek. Today they got a big letter in the mail, and after they opened it, they told you that next week, instead of going to play with your friends, you are starting football. Sounds outrageous, right?
Enter ATLAS Sports Genetics, a Colorado-based company that, according to its website, “uses enhanced DNA analysis to identify those athletes that are genetically predisposed to either speed/power or endurance characteristics.”

The company tests for the ACTN3 gene, which has two variants, X and R. The X version does not allow the production of a protein called alpha-actinin-3, while the R version does. Basically, people with two copies of the R version have a muscle composition more suited to power sports like football than people with one R and one X version, who are more suited to sports that combine endurance and power, like soccer. Continuing the pattern, people with two copies of the X variant are predisposed to be better at pure endurance sports like distance running, and studies have supported these claims. In fact, one result showed that 50 percent of the Olympic sprinters tested had two copies of the R version and that no female sprinter had two X versions of the gene.

Now, the scenario I outlined above is clearly the worst case, in which parents overreact to the information presented to them and begin to pigeonhole their child into whatever sports the test tells them little Jessica will be best at.

In The New York Times article that brought this company to my attention, the president of ATLAS is quoted as saying that we need to identify top athletes “from [age one] and up so we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there.” He added that “if you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, by then it will be too late.”

Newsflash: If the kid is a good athlete, it’ll show up without a genetic test because she’ll be really good at sports. To say that a genetic test is necessary to determine athletic prowess is utter nonsense. Because if 50 percent of the sprinters had two copies of the R variant, that means that 50 percent of the sprinters didn’t have the optimal combination and still made it to the Olympics.

Once you realize that ACTN3 is one of 200 genes that have been tied to athletic performance, you begin to see ATLAS’ test for what it really is: a scam. Many, many factors affect a child’s athletic ability. You could have two copies of the R version of the gene that will “make you a great football player,” but you might not have the necessary height. Or you could have two copies of the X version but bad knees that can’t support the 100-mile-a-week training regimen necessary to win the Boston Marathon.

The reasons parents should pass on the test go beyond ATLAS’ ridiculous reasoning that knowledge of a child’s genome will have a significant effect on his performance. Children should be free to play any sport they want without being limited or pushed by talk about “genetic predispositions.”


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