Heroes, Villains and Genetics

Heroes Villains and Genetics Image

Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, beautifully summed up my own frustrations of sporting mediocrity when Calvin exclaimed:-

“I have all these great genes, but they’re recessive.  That’s the problem here.”

Starting in 1990 and ending in 2003, the human genome project has initiated an immense number of research projects in the field of genetics.  Seemingly unfettered by any ethical concerns, countries like Uzbekistan are taking this research and applying theories in genetic selection to sports and their Olympic aspirations.  In January this year, Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, announced the program for “sports selection at the molecular genetic level”, which they claim is based on research that identifies 50 specific genes that will help identify future sporting heroes.

Proponents of genetic screening for future athletes claim that this is the next logical frontier for sports science, whilst opponents are rightly concerned about the tangled web of ethical and legal implications that currently lack any proper framework.  Undoubtedly, this is an area where the law is perpetually lagging well behind the science.

A case in point concerns patents for isolated gene sequences.  In June 2013, the US Supreme Court  effectively overturned the ability for corporations to patent naturally occurring genes, something that had been going on for over 20 years. This landmark case has helped save countless lives and changed the face of screening for life threatening genetic markers such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast and ovarian cancer genes.   Fought over eight years, this was a complicated case that involved considerations of the protection of existing revenue streams and fostering continued investment in biotech research alongside patient wellbeing.  Prior to June 2013, even your doctor needed ‘permission’ from the patent holder to look for a gene sequence, and some companies had been failing to update or modify their tests to take account of new research.

Synthesised DNA sequences that do not occur in nature are still eligible for patent protection, so one could expect that research will favour this path given that future revenue streams will have protection.  With the ability to edit genes presenting the ability to modify ones genetic traits, and advances in stem cell research, what is natural and what is not will be increasingly blurred.  And there is big money involved here.  For instance, in major sports alone there would be plenty of teams willing to pay significant sums of money to radically improve injury recovery using an athletes own stem cells – either in their natural form or perhaps even containing edited DNA to fix a systemic weakness.

With every sport on the perennial hunt for the next superstar, there are lots of theories about what makes one.  In his book ‘The Sport Gene’, author David Epstein seeks to separate scientific fact from the many theories and perceptions on the topic.    His discussion on the concept of ‘trainability’ seeks to temper blind devotion to the 10,000 hour thesis in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, or any assertions that extreme athletic performance is entirely predetermined by genetics, and he does a pretty good job of it.  ‘Trainability’ research investigates the impact of different genetics on athlete responses to training, and how important having, or in some cases not having certain gene sequences can have on athlete development and success.

The 10,000 hour theory has tapped into a rich seam of politically correct thinking where it is appealing to believe that you can attain any level of proficiency by basic old hard work.  Epstein proposes that what is most likely true of the evolution of sports performance is that straight genetics probably won out initially, then advances in training and athlete management took over, and now we are in the era of both genetics and management.  However, there is no one size fits all approach and Epstein concludes that future advances in training techniques will come from more highly targeted and individual approaches, as advances in science and technology allow us to become increasingly sophisticated and discerning.

One of my favourite exposés concerns the myth that some of us are born with quick eye-hand reactions, and having ‘catlike reflexes’ as being a genetic precursor of success.  Whilst being born with exceptional vision is a massive benefit, Epstein explains that this is not feasible to pick up a ball travelling at 160kph in flight and make real-time physical adjustment based on that vision – there simply isn’t time.  Researchers at University of California Berkeley have been researching this and based on the simple maths, it is not possible.  In baseball terms, it takes 400ms for a fastball to reach the hitter, but it takes around 100ms to see the ball and another 150ms sec for any signal to get to our muscles, but by then the ball has well and truly moved on.  In effect the information being received by the brain is perpetually out of date and our actions even more so.

It turns out that we have a powerful prediction mechanism that processes all of the data and, based on our experiences, makes a prediction of where the ball will be by the time we have reacted and commenced any hitting stroke – noting of course that the hitting stroke itself takes further time.   And let’s not forget the sheer volume of data being processed and the magnitude of functional capabilities that are being harnessed to achieve the outcome of placing bat on ball at some point in the future.  How cool is that!!

By way of example, Epstein tells the story of when Barry Bonds of MLB fame challenged Olympic champion softball pitcher Jenny Finch to a duel.  No wallflower, Bond suggested in his ‘pick up line’ that;

‘You can’t be pretty and good and not face a guy who is handsome and good.  You better bring a net, I’ll hit you in the face with the ball’

Now, despite that the ball is larger in size, is travelling around 60% slower and with a marginally longer transition time than he is used to, Bonds went swish after swish with no bat on ball to be seen.  Bonds was like loads of other batters in many sports, he simply didn’t really know why he was so good.  What he was actually really good at was interpreting masses of data on the fly. Things like shoulder rotation, grip and finger positions, ball rotations at the point of release, and loads of other cues learned through diligent practice that started to form his response even before the ball was released. Once released, his powerful prediction computer, working off his massive data bank that had been accumulated through meticulous practice took over.  Of course, he had no such data set for a softball pitcher and was struck out in no-time.

So what we perceive as quick hand-eye mechanics, is actually a combination of exceptional visual acuity with an ability to better process, learn, interpret and predict based on those visual and other experiential queues.  The analogy used by Epstein is one of having the right combination of both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’.  There may be a couple of genetic markers that can help identify the Barry Bond’s or Donald Bradman’s of this world, but my guess is that it will be a mind-boggling cornucopia of genetic traits that make up one of these rare individuals.

Of course, sports that rely on pure strength, endurance or speed may require simpler genetic templates for success.   However, the heritability of height is around 80%, yet scientists have discovered that even this seemingly most basic of genetic traits is confoundedly complicated.  If Uzbekistan can drill down on those 50 key sporting genes, then this proposes trillions upon trillions of possible combinations, all seemingly entangled with athlete training and development.  However, I am sure some pretty useful stuff will come from the research.

Before you say that genetic testing and selection in sports is akin to using performance enhancing drugs, consider the benefits of being able to predict a propensity for certain injuries, or identify specific training techniques or diet that will be more beneficial than others (ironically, even our response to PED’s is influenced by our genes!).  Consider also the economic and personal costs of failures in these areas.  Also, guiding children towards sports where they have the right ‘hardware’ and might have a chance of being good at may present a more rewarding experience for them that improves participation and general societal fitness levels.  Natural genetic selection has been going on since humans have been on the earth and is the key tenement of evolution.  Let’s face it, sports like AFL and basketball have been genetically selecting kids based on their height, and the height and athletic ability of their parents for years.  And let’s not forget the symbiotic impact for those kids of being picked in better teams earlier and then receiving better training along the way.

I don’t believe that this is a field of science that will be held back and there will be both heroes and villains to emerge from the lab.  However in the main, I personally doubt it will be as cut and dried as popular opinion may scream, and the interplay of different genetic and environmental markers will make outcomes very difficult to predict.   Nonetheless, plenty of countries will be carefully watching the Uzbekistan experiment.  I am also certain that we will see plenty of clever profiteers who sell loads of genetic tests to parents eager to see if they have the next Tiger Woods in their crib.

On a personal note, my wife and I were blessed with identical twins.  Split from one fertilised egg, they are natural genetic clones, yet I am never ceased to be amazed by how different they are in so many essential ways.  Forced to regularly contemplate the complexity of life, personality, aptitude and what makes us who we are, I hope the scientists in Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry have secured plenty of long-term funding.

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.

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