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Outside the Lines

The Athlete of the 21st Century

Science to give the human body a makeover

Genetics: Finding the right stuff

Rehab: Knees made easy

Bionics: Calling Steve Austin

Next 100 years: The future is in your hands


Coaches: Bring on testing

Audio chat wrap: Princeton geneticist Lee Silver and Oakland A's strength coach Bob Alejo

Chat wrap: Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi


U.S. women's rowing coach Hartmut Buschbacher sees the value of genetic testing.
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Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver says the next decade will reveal the individual genes that make great athletes.
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Princeton geneticist Lee Silver says genetic testing would identify 80 percent of potential pro athletes.
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Youth sports expert Robert Malina worries about the impact on children.
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This five-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special that originally aired Jan. 14.

Tuesday, June 3
Genetic testing beckons
By Tom Farrey

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- As the women's eight boat pulls up to the dock, concluding a practice session here at the U.S. Olympic training center, science goes to work. Two assistants race over to the boat and take pin-pricks of blood from the rowers to determine their individual lactic acid levels immediately after exertion.

On other days, they will be hooked up to a machine to determine how much oxygen each can take in while exercising. Some of them will undergo muscle biopsies, to determine the constitution -- fast-twitch vs. slow-twitch -- of their fiber.

Women rowers
Elite rowers need to have strength, endurance and the ability to get lots of oxygen to their muscles.
Someday, U.S. womens' national team coach Harmut Buschbacher also would like to get genetic profiles of young rowers.

"As a coach, I'm interested in performance," Buschbacher said, "and if this information would give me a better opportunity to select the athletes for my team, I would like to use that. (That way) you're not going to waste so much time and energy on athletes who may not be as successful."

The day when athletes and potential athletes can be genetically screened for the right stuff -- even before they are born -- might not be that far off. Later this year, the Human Genome Project, a federally funded $3 billion effort to unravel the 100,000 or so genes that each person possesses, will deliver its results. Celera, a private company racing against the government, announced earlier this week that it had decoded 90 percent of the human genome.

The goals of these projects are to address diseases, not create better athletes. But the information about the individual genes and how they determine differences between people is likely to have a profound impact on the world of sports, which is awash with prestige -- and often money -- for those who can reach the highest level.

By using genetic testing, you will be able to identify perhaps 80 percent of the children who have any potential to be a pro athlete.
Dr. Lee Silver, Princeton geneticist

"What most people don't realize is the incredible power of the information that lies within the Human Genome Project," said Dr. Lee Silver, a Princeton geneticist and molecular biologist. "It's absolutely going to happen that during the next decade we're going to identify the genes that give individuals different athletic abilities."

Later this century, geneticists expect this knowledge to be used to create superhuman athletes. Once genes related to physical characteristics and athletic performance are identified, and gene replacement techniques are perfected, Silver says parents will be able to engineer the genomes of their unborn babies while they are still single-cell embryos. But that is farther in the future (and an area will explore more on Thursday).

Genetic testing in sports, however, is on the near horizon.

Already research separate from the Human Genome Project has found one gene that some scientists believe is associated with elite endurance athletes. It's called the ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme) Gene, which is active in muscle tissue and regulates blood flow. Researchers in Britain and Australia found in 1998 that Olympic-caliber cyclists, distance runners and rowers have a certain form of the gene more often than members of the general public or even elite athletes in non-endurance sports.

Why would that be? Based on their own studies of post-menopausal women, a team of U.S. researchers, led by University of Maryland exercise physiologist James Hagberg, suggests that the advantage comes from being able to consume 20 percent more oxygen than people who don't have the ideal form of the gene.

More significantly, sports scientists don't necessarily need to know how individual genes work to put the knowledge to use. They just have to know that a version of a certain gene, or combination of genes, commonly exist in athletes in particular sports.

"By using genetic testing, you will be able to identify perhaps 80 percent of the children who have any potential to be a professional athlete," Silver said. Testing will reveal "whether a child has the potential to be a great tight end, or a great basketball player or a great swimmer."

Visions of Jennifer Capriati, Todd Marinovich and other famously maladjusted athletic prodigies dance in the heads of those concerned about what all this could mean to kids.

"If you look at elite young athletes, many of them have a very narrow lifestyle right now," said Robert Malina, a Michigan State professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. "They are nurtured by the system, and many even have difficulty coping once they get out of the system. If you're labeled awful early in life as having the right genotype to be a good athlete, the system will get progressively worse."

Genes over time
1865: Mendel discovers the Laws of Heredity

1953: Structure of DNA found

1973: Toad gene placed into bacteria

1988: Patent granted for first genetically engineered mammal, the Oncomouse

1990: Human Genome Project begins

1993: Early-stage human embryos cloned

1996: Dolly the sheep cloned from DNA of adult ewe

1998: Korean researchers put woman's DNA in her eggs, and embryos start to grow

1998: ACE gene associated with elite endurance athletes

2000: Human Genome Project expected to announce working draft of genome

Amy Fuller, a rower on the U.S. national team, says if someone told her as a child what sport she should play it would "limit" her psychologically. She says she would prefer not to know that information, for, unlike more conventional ways of evaluating an athlete's strength or speed, there is nothing she can change about it.

However, like her coach -- and perhaps as a reflection of the mixed feelings that many people would have about genetic profiling -- Fuller does see some value in such a test. "I mean, my mom started me in ballet," said Fuller, who is 5-feet-11 and well-muscled. "What a nightmare that was. Didn't have the grace gene, obviously."

Jay Kearney, sports scientist for the U.S. Olympic Committee, has no plans to add genetic testing to its program of evaluating athletes. He said he is aware of the latest research into genes associated with athletic performance, but he believes more conventional methods right now are better at identifying potential gold medalists.

Hagberg is betting that the thinking of sports governing bodies will change as more is learned about genes related to athletic performance.

"Olympic committees only have the capacities to support so many athletes," he said. "The possibility to identify those genetically that might have a better endowment for maximal performances would optimize the use of their monies, time and effort."

Currently, genetic testing is confined to hospitals and research facilities -- and few if any of those would perform a test that was unrelated to disease, for ethical reasons. But those barriers are expected to come down soon with the development of low-cost, broadly available devices based on DNA chip technology, said Dr. Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Within the next five years, many doctors offices are expected to have genetic testing equipment. One company, Clinical Microsensors of Pasadena, Calif., already has developed a prototype of a handheld device that would allow testing for the ACE gene (among others) to be done anywhere, for just a few bucks -- or even for free. All that's needed from the subject is a prick of blood or a swab of the inside of a cheek.

Dan Farkas, director of clinical diagnostics with Clinical Microsensors, said the company's initial market for the handheld device would be doctors, but eventually they would like to make it available to parents, who could use it to determine which sport, if any, their child's genotype is best suited for.

"That's not a dream," he said. "That's something we're shooting for."

And yet, sometimes a little information can be a dangerous thing. While an athlete's genetics may be valuable, so is heart and smarts -- intangible qualities that may in part be ground in genetics but are harder to quantify. Would a DNA test have told 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues that he could make it in the NBA, or 5-foot-10 Doug Flutie that he could play quarterback in the NFL?

"This is not a perfect predictor of athlete performance," Hagberg said. "There are probably large numbers of athletes holding world records today who don't have the right genotype."

Genetic testing promises a more efficient sports world. Time will tell if it's any better.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with He can be reached at

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