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Does your kid have champion genes?

May 25, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
All parents think their children are good at sports, but how do you know if they're really good? Will your kicking kid grow up to be a soccer sensation? Can your daughter make it from the training pool to the Olympic pool?

Could workouts transform Jackie Berube into a world-class athlete?

"I'm going to try and make it to the 2012 Olympics," said Berube.

Even though Jackie Berube will be 40 years old when the London Olympics begin, it's not stopping her. She believes she was born to be a weightlifter.

"I definitely think it's in my genetics," said Berube.

Researchers believe they've found the gene that separate good athletes from great athletes. It's called ACTN3.

"This is something we are all born with, so to a degree we are all athletes," said Kevin Reilly, Atlas Sports Genetics president.

But to what degree depends on our ACTN3 gene? Each person has two copies of it -- one from each parent. This gene is responsible for making a special protein.

"This particular protein in the body has a lot to do with the ability of the muscle to contract at very high velocities. So for speed explosion sports, it's critical to have this protein inside," said Reilly.

But in some people, a variant prevents the gene from making this protein. These people tend to be good at endurance sports such as distance running, swimming or cross country skiing. But athletes who got the variant from only one parent may be mixed -- suited for both endurance and sprint-power sports.

While some believe this may be the key to finding world class athletes, others call it a genetic roulette for children.

"In some ways I feel they are really limiting their children's future by doing things like that. The tests are not that predictive. There is so much more that goes into making someone who they are than just their DNA," said Dr. Marta Gwinn.

Many parents say the test won't have an impact on how they raise their children.

The president of Atlas Sports Genetics says the best age to test kids is around 8 because kids are still developing motor skills that can help their athletic ability.

The Atlas Sports Test costs $149. Experts say the saliva test is just one of several tests that hopeful young athletes should take to measure their performance level.

Web Extra Information: DNA of Sports

TESTING YOUR ATHLETIC ABILITY:

Genetic tests can reveal whether you are at risk for developing certain diseases, and now they can also determine what sports your child might be best suited for. Atlas Sports Genetics, based in Boulder, Co., is offering a $149 test that can help predict a child's natural athletic abilities.

The ACTN3 genetic test can be performed as early as birth. Atlas Sports Genetics say they focus on testing children from infancy to about 8 years of age. The test involves a simple swab of the inside of the cheek and gums to collect DNA. That sample is then sent to a lab and tested for the ACTN3 gene -- one of more than 20,000 genes in the human genome.

The goal of the test is to reveal whether someone will perform better for speed and power sports like sprinting and football, endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of both.

SWIMMING OR CYCLING?

Everyone has two copies of ACTN3, inheriting one from each parent. The gene is responsible for telling our bodies to produce a specific muscle protein called alpha-actinin-3. Some people have a variant of ACTN3 that prevents the gene from making that protein.

There are no apparent negative health effects from having the variant, but there does appear to be an effect on athletic ability.

Studies show alpha-actinin-3 contributes to the muscle's ability to generate forceful contractions at high velocity. Those who have the variant in both copies of their gene may be better suited for endurance or aerobic sports. Those with one copy of the variant may be suited for both endurance and sprint/power sports. Those with neither copy of the variant may have a natural predisposition for speed/power sports.

The link between the ACTN3 gene and athletic abilities was discovered in 2003 by Australian researchers. They looked at 429 elite white athletes that included 50 Olympians. Half of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the variant. Yet, some athletes go against the science grain. For example, one Olympic long jumper from Spain has copies of the variant that makes the muscle building protein. )

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