Sporty types

By Andy Coghlan SPORTING champions may be born rather than made, a new report suggests. Geneticists in London say that elite mountaineers and trainee soldiers are stronger and have more physical endurance if they have inherited a particular variant of a gene that helps regulate blood pressure. A team led by Hugh Montgomery of University College London monitored the effects of two common variants of the gene that makes angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). This enzyme helps regulate blood pressure and the efficient use of oxygen in body tissues. Suspecting that the gene might affect physical performance, the team did two experiments, one on mountaineers and one on trainee soldiers. They found that people had better endurance if they had inherited the so-called I allele of the ACE gene, which has an insertion—an extra slug of DNA. The best performances were seen in people who had inherited the I allele from both parents. The weaker performances tallied with inheritance of the so-called D allele, which lacks the extra slug of DNA. Worst performances were in those with a pair. Subjects with one D and one I allele clocked up medium performances. In the first experiment, Montgomery and his colleagues examined DNA from 33 elite mountaineers selected by the British Mountaineering Council for their ability to climb to 7000 metres without supplementary oxygen. Checks of their DNA against that taken from 1906 healthy males in the general population showed that the I allele was much more prevalent among the mountaineers. Of 15 mountaineers who regularly climbed higher than 8000 metres, none had a pair of D alleles. In a second study, of 78 army recruits, the team investigated how allele inheritance tallied with the development of muscular strength over a 10-week training course. At the end of the course, trainees with a pair of I alleles had improved their weightlifting capabilities eleven times more than recruits with two D alleles. The researchers are now planning to unravel the biochemical reasons behind the results. One theory is that I alleles make cells use oxygen more efficiently. “We think the Iallele people get more for less, so it’s down to cellular metabolic efficiency,” says Montgomery. Montgomery says the I allele cannot have a long-term evolutionary advantage—the two alleles are equally distributed in the population, and the I allele would dominate if there were any evolutionary benefit. He rejects the idea that sporting coaches and army personnel departments might want to screen out job applicants with the “weak” gene combination. Nor does he believe that parents would have any reason to select for children with the double I combination. David King, editor of GenEthics Newsand an opponent of eugenics, is less sure. He suspects the gene could be used both by parents for selecting “sporty” offspring and for screening job applicants for work requiring endurance. “This is an example of how we run the risk of consumer-driven eugenics,
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