A Mystery May be Unfolding . . .

Posted by admin April 12th, 2009

It is believed to be a top athlete you need the right genes. One gene which has been shown to play a role in elite athletic endurance has been discovered. It’s called the ACE gene, because it codes for the enzyme that activates the hormone angiotensin–ACE is short for angiotensin converting enzyme.

A group working in London knew that ACE is active in muscle tissue, where it regulates blood flow, so they figured it might have a role in endurance performance. They knew that the gene comes in two forms–I (for insertion) and D (for deletion)–so they did a study to find out if endurance athletes are more likely to have one or other form. The athletes they chose were elite mountaineers who could ascend above 7000 m without oxygen. Bingo! The I form was much more prevalent amongst the mountaineers than in the general population. What’s more, the mountaineers who could go to the highest altitudes without oxygen had two copies of the I form (one from mom and one from dad). The researchers then showed that the I form of the gene produced a greater response to strength-endurance training in army recruits: after a 10-week training program, time to exhaustion in a weighted elbow-flexion exercise lasting 2 min increased by only 6% in the recruits with two copies of the D form, by 21% in those with an I and a D, and by 66% in those with two Is. The findings were published in the May 21 issue of Nature (Montgomery et al., 1998). Two months later an Australian group reported that the I form of the ACE gene was much more frequent amongst elite rowers than in the general population (Gayagay et al., 1998).

There are several important implications. First, athletes in endurance sports will show a better response to training if they have two copies of the I form of the ACE gene, so it won’t be long before talent identification includes DNA testing. Will that be any different from selecting on the basis of maximum oxygen uptake? Secondly, other genes predictive of athletic potential will soon be discovered, but no gene will ever substitute for hard training, good coaching, and good sport-science support. Finally, sport scientists doing training studies with endurance athletes should think seriously about getting their subjects DNA tested, because the presence of the I form will help explain individual differences in the response to training.

Reference: Will G Hopkins PhD, Physiology and Physical Education, University of Otago, Dunedin 9001, New Zealand.

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