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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 August, 2003, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Top sprinters may have key gene
Darren Campbell, 100m bronze medallist at this week's World Athletics Championships
Has Darren Campbell got the gene?
Becoming one of the fastest men or women in the world is all about years of hard training, healthy eating and early nights - or is it?

Scientists in Australia have found evidence to suggest that genetics may also play an important part.

They say top class sprinters are more likely to have a copy of a particular version of a gene called ACTN3.

They believe this version, the R allele, enables them to produce the explosive bursts of speed they need.

R allele produces a protein called actinin, which is found in muscle fibres. Scientists believe it enables muscles to contract more quickly and more powerfully.

The gene also comes in another form, the X allele. However, this version does not produce this protein.

Olympic athletes

Researchers at the Institute of Neuromuscular Research in Sydney carried out DNA tests on 300 athletes, 50 of whom represented Australia at Olympic or international level in a variety of sports. They also carried out similar tests on 400 ordinary people.

Screening would only ever give an indication, albeit a potentially valuable one, as to a child's athletic promise
Rodney Walker, UK Sport
According to New Scientist magazine, they found that 95% of elite sprinters had at least one copy of the R allele while 50% had two copies.

This compares to the other volunteers. Just 72% of them had one copy of the R allele while 30% had two copies.

The study, originally published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, also found differences between sprinters and other athletes.

They found that non-sprinters or those who participate in endurance sports, such as distance running, were also less likely to have this version of the gene.

Just 76% of endurance athletes had one R allele while 32% had two copies.

The researchers also tested for the other version of this gene, the X allele.

They found that just 5% of sprinters had two copies of this gene. This compares to 24% of endurance athletes and 18% of the ordinary volunteers.

These differences prompted the researchers to speculate that athletes with two copies of X allele were better suited to endurance sports.

People with two copies of X allele are unable to produce actinin-3, the protein needed to enable muscles to move quickly and powerfully.

Kathryn North, who led the study, said: "I hypothesis that absence of alpha-actinin-3 means that an individual's muscles are more 'slow' in character, and better suited for endurance activities."

Genetic screening

However, even members of the research team have conceded that the findings will not mean future Olympic champions could be identified early through genetic testing.

Most experts believe many other genes may also play a role.

Jason Gulbin, who coordinates scouting activities for Australia's Institute of Sport, backed that view.

"Being an elite athlete is not entirely dependent on ACTN3. It is still highly contentious whether we can use genetic markers to predict performance at all. The research has not been done," he told New Scientist.

Rodney Walker, chairman of UK Sport, said genetic testing would serve only to identify people with potential.

"Screening would only ever give an indication, albeit a potentially valuable one, as to a child's athletic promise," he said.

Is winning in your genes?
21 May 98  |  Science/Nature

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