VIDEO Sporty genomes: Are elite athletes born or made?

If a major goal of genomics research is to understand the underlying molecular causes of beneficial phenotypes, for purposes of promoting overall health in society, then perhaps sports, in many regards, can help facilitate this process. The canonical athletic phenotype, with highly desirable physical traits, may serve as a model for understanding optimal fitness. And certainly professional athletes, at the pinnacle of their respective sport, have tremendous social and economic influence by inspiring everyday athletes and fans alike to emulate their performances. Therefore, a deeper understanding (or at least discussion) of what makes an “elite” athlete, or who has the potential to become one, is warranted. With 99% percent of the human genome being identical, is it plausible to think we all have the inherent ability to become elite athletes? Or, do the remaining 30 million divergent nucleotides of our genetic code determine who can or cannot become an Olympian? At the annual Genes, Environment, and Traits (GET) conference, a sports genomics panel was held to discuss this provocative topic. Invited speakers were:

  • David EpsteinInvestigative reporter at ProPublica, former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, author of the New York Times best seller The Sports Gene.
  • Heidi Rehm, PhDChief Lab Director at Partners’ Laboratory for Molecule Medicine, associate professor of Pathology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, expert on genomic medicine & integrating genetic discovery into clinics
  • Mark Gerstein, PhDProfessor of Bioinformatics at Yale University, expert in human genome mining & annotation, author on over 400 computational biology research publications.
  • Jonathan Scheiman (moderator), a research fellow in the genomics laboratory of George Church, former Division I athlete, and NBA correspondent for an international radio show.

In a lively debate at the 2014 GET Conference – which included moments of scientific inquiry, levity, and moral contemplation – panelists engaged in discourse over the inheritability and trainability of athletic traits as well as selective pressure from society to enrich for performance phenotypes. Additional topics discussed included:

  • Evolution of athletic body types
  • Performance enhancing polymorphisms
  • Genetic tests and specialization of athletes at a young age
  • Genetic tests for ensuring athlete health – requisite or optional?
  • Whole genome sequencing of elite athletes for beneficial allele discovery
  • Professional athlete salaries vs. science funding – can we collaborate?!?
  • Quantified self and advanced analytics in professional sports
  • The future and potential of genomics in sports analytics
  • Competition, fairness, and genetic engineering

Practice vs. genetics. Nature vs. nurture. A timeless debate, with a new quantitative spin from current cutting edge advances in next generation genomics technologies. Never before has society had access to such powerful tools to read and write DNA. And athletes, with a history of transcending sport, are as are as popular as ever in mainstream culture. Perhaps the next revolution in science will entail a sports star allowing us all to peak into their biological greatness. Scientists vs. athletes? Why? As the sports genomics panel at the GET conference displayed, these are two communities that stand to benefit from playing on the same team.

Watch the video.

(special thanks to moderator Jonathan Scheiman for this written summary)

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