A natural selection solution to your sport

A Dublin-based company provides home-testing kits to help determine if your genes have any athletic potential

Carl O’Brien: his mixed muscle fibres mean he is suited to triathlons. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Carl O’Brien: his mixed muscle fibres mean he is suited to triathlons. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 16:47

I’ve always believed that one day I might win an Olympic medal. Never mind the fact that just about every sport I’ve tried – soccer, rugby, hurling, cycling, tennis – has been followed by the crushing reality that I’m not much good at any of them.

But what I lack in athletic ability, I more than make up for with a pig-headed refusal to look facts in the face

Even now at 35 years of age – when most sportspeople are announcing their retirement – I remain convinced there’s an obscure sport for which I have some precocious but undiscovered talent. And now, at last, there may be a way of finding out for sure: genetic testing.

Scientists have identified several genes they say can indicate athletic ability in areas such as strength, speed and various aspects of athletic performance. In theory, then, your results should be able to point towards which sport you’re best suited.

For example, someone with so-called fast-twitch muscle fibres – good for short, sharp bursts of speed – would be more suited to sprinting. Someone with more slow-twitch fibres is more suited to longer distance or endurance events.

Once this might have involved lengthy and expensive genetic sequencing. Now, companies such as Dublin-based Genetic Performance provide simple home-testing kits which deliver results, via a lab, within weeks.

“We can’t, unfortunately, tell you whether you’ll win an Olympic medal,” says Joseph Dalton of Genetic Performance. “But we can help determine your genetic athletic potential.”

It’s sounds promising – but also a bit disturbing. What if I have no athletic ability whatsoever? What if the truth is so deflating that I never get up off the couch again? In fact, do I really want to know the truth?

Indication of talent
He’s quick to reassure. Genetics tell you only so much and provide an indication of your talent and trainability. These abilities need to be exposed to coaching, opportunity and a competitive culture. And then there’s the question of whether they’ll be sustained by the personality of the athlete.

“This is all about potential,” he says. “From the results, we can develop a conditioning programme or nutrition programme that’s best for you. Each programme is based on your particular genetics, your sport and your objectives.”

The test itself costs about €189 and involves taking a swab of my mouth with several cotton buds which are posted to the company’s partner laboratory in the US. So far, so easy.

Then the DNA results are sequenced and analysed against 10 sets of genes which the company says are linked to various aspects of athletic performance.

It’s a hotly debated science. Genetic Performance says it delivers an accurate picture of a person’s athletic potential. Other scientists say testing is still in its infancy and the reality is far more complex than identifying a handful of genes.

David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, a study of the nature-versus-nurture debate, says it shows the extent to which genetics can influence sporting ability. But it’s only part of the picture.

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