Research confirms ‘ace’ running genes
Elliot Franczek is not afraid to admit it. “I have always dreaded sprints,” says the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point cross country runner.
Yet through research Franczek conducted with visiting biology lecturer Aaron Davis,
the Biochemistry, Chemistry and Spanish major learned he might be genetically predisposed for success in shorter runs.
Davis received his Ph.D. at Utah State University, where he studied early embryo development, specifically how genes get turned on and off during embryonic development. His primary interest area is cloning, but cloning research requires extensive funding and expensive research facilities. So upon arriving at UW-Stevens Point he shifted his research focus to athletic genomics, the study of genes and how they predispose certain people to success in different sports.
Several student groups analyzed genes and their correlation to performance in a range of academic and athletic pursuits. Franczek and Davis focused on the genes ACE and ACTN3 and their relationship to long- and short-distance running.
ACE contributes to blood vessel constriction and restricts oxygen delivery to muscles. The I allele has decreased ACE activity, resulting in increased oxygen delivery – optimal for endurance athletes like distance runners. The ACTN3 gene organizes fast-twitch muscle fibers and increases forceful muscle contractions. As such, this gene’s R allele is advantageous in sprint and power events.
Franczek and Davis set out to research the frequency of these alleles in UW-Stevens Point athletes. Franczek approached Pointer cross country/track and field coach Rick Witt, who was supportive of the initiative. His teammates were also enthusiastic – roughly 60 athletes took part in the study.
“The track athletes were extremely excited to discover what genotype they had and thrilled that research was being done on them,” he says. “I was asked almost daily how the research was going and when they would have the results.”
The results confirmed the pair’s hypothesis. Among runners competing in distance running events (3, 5, 6 and 8 kilometers) presence of the ACE I allele showed a performance advantage. Among sprinters (60, 100 and 200 meters), those possessing the ACTN3 R allele showed a performance advantage.
“I was thrilled with the findings, they were better than I was expecting,” says Franczek. “These findings suggest that the genotype of an individual can have very real consequences at the Division III collegiate level of competition.”
Davis says the presence of these genes is just a portion of the overall genetic makeup characterized in runners of various distances. “That’s the challenge – what genes are involved?” he says. “Let’s say for sprinters 100 genes are favorable. One of them doesn’t give you superfast abilities, but all contribute in some amount. Somebody who has 10 favorable genes will be faster than someone who has five, but still slower than somebody who has 25. Usain Bolt probably has 40-45 favorable genes.”
Discovering the relationship between genetics and athletic performance raises ethical questions, but Davis says the research is less about predicting future performance and more about focusing and training more efficiently.
“That is the future of athletic genomics – precision training,” he says. “How can you train more efficiently to maximize your results? Based on this genotype, we feed you a certain way, train you a certain way, whereas someone else with a different genotype would train differently.
“We certainly saw examples of sprinters who did not have favorable genes but were still posting really good times. But what we can do with this is take a high school athlete and say ‘You have the genotype of a mid-distance runner. You can spend the next three years trying out these different events until you realize your best times are in mid-distance, or we can tell you from Day 1 and you can start training for that.’”
In the coming year Franczek and Davis hope to expand their research to include more genes and more athletes from more sports. “My hope is to get well over 300 DNA samples from large cross country and track meets,” says Franczek. “With a much larger sample size we will be able to make a more definite conclusion on the effects of an individual’s genotype. There will also be a much larger data set, which hopefully shows the same trends that we have observed in the UW-Stevens Point track athletes.”
As for Franczek, the senior from Hilbert was not surprised to learn his ACE gene predisposes him to distance running. He was surprised to learn he also possesses the ACTN3 genotype that suggests possible sprinting success. No matter.
“Even with the R genotype I will continue to hate sprinting!” he says.