The Science of Sustainability

Using Genetics to Pick Your Kids' Sports

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Should their ACTN3 gene version exclude some of these folks
from marathons? Photo by Monica Darby.
Should I sign Johnny up for football or cross country running? Let me take a quick look at his ACTN3 gene to find out.

This scenario is not as far fetched as it sounds. A genetic test is available that claims to be able to help parents predict what sports their kids will be good at. The idea is that the parents can then funnel their kids into the sports at which they are most likely to succeed. How scary is that!

As I said, the test looks at the ACTN3 gene. Some work has been done that shows that elite athletes with one version are good at sports like football or sprinting. And that elite athletes with another version are good at sports like marathons.

But this gene is just one of many involved in determining how good someone will be at a certain sport. One of the key researchers who identified this gene has written that it can only really account for 2-3% of muscle variation in the general population. In other words, it is just one of many factors involved in making a star athlete.

So this genetic test might be able to distinguish an Olympic athlete from one who doesn't quite make the team. But how many kids does this really apply to?

Even if a genetic test could tell everything about a person's muscles, I would still think it is awful to restrict a child's choices of sports based on that sort of genetic test. Let me give you a hypothetical for why I find this sort of testing so troubling.

Imagine that instead of this test, there is a reliable one that will accurately predict someone's height*. Let's say a family has the test done on their son and they find that he will grow to be 5'3".

The family steers the boy away from basketball because height is so important in that game. If this actually happened, then the NBA may never have had former pro Mugsy Bogues.

A genetic test that looks at a single trait to determine a person's future is dangerous. Should someone not be introduced into a sport because of their genes? Really?

A genetic test for height won't look at determination. Or speed or ball handling or all of the other traits that made Mugsy such a great player for 16 years.

And the ACTN3 gene test doesn't look at lots of other important traits too. In fact, it won't predict whether your child will be a super athlete or necessarily even good at football vs. a marathon.

Even if a test were developed that looked at all of these traits, should parents use it to control the sports their kids can play? What about their child's interests? Should Mugsy's parents have taken the basketball away from him even though he obviously loved the game?

Just let the kids play! Genes are not destiny.

*This sort of test is a long way off. Scientists only recently found the first "height" gene.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • J

    Wow! this is interesting.
    So does this mean possibly that in the future only people with good genes would be able to become athletes?
    I saw this movie called GATTACA in my biology class and in the movie people were assigned jobs depending on how good their genes are. This article is really interesting because it shows that the movie could possibly become the reality.
    But then I do not think this is ever going to happen because of the human nature and morals that we all carry in us.

  • tkelly

    I have just been studying this in my Biology class. We focused on genetics, specifically gene mutations and testing. I agree that selection by something so predisposed,such as what only one gene can determine is wrong, and almost immoral. As said in the article there are MANY other factors that contribute to something such as being good at one sport. When people start testing genes to see if a person is 'good enough' for something, a whole new discrimination is formed. "Gene discrimination"… how scary! The genes one person has do not necessarily determine ones success in life; things like determination, focus, and sheer willingness and devotion to trying and succeeding are and will remain impossible to find out or 'understand' through genetic testing. ones life situation, s well as personality is (I think) the mane thing that determines our path of life.

  • KK-Bio student

    This also reminds me of the movie GATTACA and the idea that we can choose the 'best' choice for our children instead of letting them decide on their own. If we intstill into our children the belief that what we say they are not able to do, they cannot do, then they will become dependent and unable to make decisions for themselves. This could, eventually, lead to a problem not only of people being unable to choose for themselves which sports they want to play, but also which paths of education, and also jobs they do or do not want to follow. This in turn, could lead to an entire generation of unhappy people who can find no means of escaping the repetitive circle of dependency which began when they were only children, not able to choose for themselves.

  • http://www.homeforeclosureblocker.com Home

    I do believe the genetic testing for sports is but one of the factors in how your kids do in sports……like everything else in life one must look at lifestyle and the kids desire to pursue any sport.