Is a football championship in your DNA?

Many factors may influence athleticism, including genetics

The playoffs are over, and we’ll once again watch as New England battles for the championship. If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone—counting this year, New England has been in nine out of the past twenty championship games!

In that same period, the world has seen major advances in genetic research that have enabled people to learn about their ancestry, their health, and—speaking of football—even certain aspects of their athletic potential. So, what do we know about the genetics of athleticism?

DNA does have a small impact

Research into the genetics of athleticism has helped us see that many factors, both genetic and environmental, contribute to a person’s athletic abilities. One well studied genetic factor is known as ACTN3.

The ACTN3 gene is responsible for producing a protein by the same name, ACTN3, which helps to build fast twitch muscle fibers—parts of a muscle that help to generate rapid and powerful contractions1. There are two version of the ACTN3 gene that are important for this example: the standard version, and the “X” version. In 2003—a year sandwiched between two New England championship seasons—researchers described a trend in which elite sprinters appeared to inherit the standard version of the ACTN3 gene far more frequently than the X version2. This was interesting because a random sampling of the general public would later reveal a mixture of people who have inherited the X version and others who have inherited the standard version3,4. However, almost every elite sprinter they tested had the standard version. This suggests that people who inherit the X version of the ACTN3 gene may be less likely to excel in sprint or power based exercises.

Does this mean you can blame your ACTN3 gene for keeping you off the gridiron? No, unfortunately not. Further research into the ACTN3 gene found that it can only explain a very small percentage (some reports say only about 2-3%) of the difference between people’s sprinting abilities.

There’s a lot to learn from our genetics

We see from the example of ACTN3 that DNA can have effects on our physical abilities, though these effects are often small. In the past several decades, researchers have identified many different genetic factors that appear to have small influences on a person’s BMI, their propensity for power or endurance exercises, their risk of experiencing a ligament or stress fracture injury, and many other such traits. And while the physical effect of DNA may be small, learning about our DNA may have a profound effect on us.

 

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In the past 20 years, advances in technology have decreased the cost of DNA sequencing. As a result, genetic tests are more affordable than ever. With access to our DNA, we can learn about ourselves in a molecular way. Even if the effect of each individual genetic factor is small, learning about your DNA and how it may be influencing your life can be a powerfully motivating moment. If you found out you were slightly predisposed to ligament tears, would you take a second look at your workout routine? What if you’re DNA suggests you’re likely to have a slightly elevated BMI? The point is that learning about your DNA can be a starting point—a different way of looking at fitness and possibly a way to find new approaches towards wellness.

The bottom line: Athleticism is more than DNA, which is why we give you more than DNA results

In total, research into the genetics of athleticism tells us that DNA cannot explain the extraordinary athletic talent we’ll see in the upcoming game. Perhaps more importantly, what this research has taught us is that our training routines, the support we get, and the resources we have available to us play a much bigger role in shaping our athletic careers. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an athletic superstar to get resources and support. Many of the products in the Helix Store are designed to help you learn about your DNA and the various ways it may affect your body, but also to provide you with resources that help you design personal fitness and diet routines. A good example is MyTraits Sport from Intelliseq, which helps you explore your predisposition for power or endurance muscle types, including an analysis of the ACTN3 gene. Whether your goal is the championship or just surviving your local gym, there’s never been a better time to get started on your journey.

 

1Schiaffino, Stefano, and Carlo Reggiani. “Fiber Types in Mammalian Skeletal Muscles.” Physiological Reviews, vol. 91, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1447–1531., doi:10.1152/physrev.00031.2010.

2Yang, Nan et al. “ACTN3 genotype is associated with human elite athletic performance” American journal of human genetics vol. 73,3 (2003): 627-31.

3Ahmetov, Ildus I., and Olga N. Fedotovskaya. “Current Progress in Sports Genomics.” Advances in Clinical Chemistry, 11 Apr. 2015, pp. 247–314., doi:10.1016/bs.acc.2015.03.003. Web. 19 Dec. 2017

4Friedlander, Scott M., et al. “ACTN3 Allele Frequency in Humans Covaries with Global Latitudinal Gradient.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052282.

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