Category: Sports

As a story in the New York Times reports, some people respond well to aerobic exercise, while others seem to benefit less or not at all. There are studies that show there is a genetic component to this: various exercise traits (and the drive to exercise at all) do certainly run in families. A new study has scanned to genomes of 473 individuals subjected to the same 5-month exercise regime and found that particular SNPs (pronounced “snips;” we’ve talked about these before, see this post) are associated with a robust response to exercise. From the New York Times story:

The researchers looked at 324,611 individual snippets over all. Each of the volunteers had already completed a carefully supervised five-month exercise program, during which participants pedaled stationary bicycles three times a week, at controlled and identical intensities. Some wound up much fitter, as determined by the increase in the amount of oxygen their bodies consumed during intense exercise, a measure called maximal oxygen capacity, or VO2 max. In others, VO2 max had barely budged. No obvious, consistent differences in age, gender, body mass or commitment marked those who responded well and those who continued to huff and struggle during their workouts, even after five months.

But there was a divergence in their genomes. The researchers identified 21 specific SNPs, out of the more than 300,000 examined, that differed consistently between the two groups. SNPs come in pairs, since each of us receives one paternal copy and one maternal copy. So there were 42 different individual versions of the 21 SNPs. Those exercisers who had 19 or more of these SNPs improved their cardiorespiratory fitness three times as much as those who had nine or fewer.

One interesting question that is raised by this research is: if one finds that they do not have the advantageous SNPs, will they simply not try to exercise at all?

Our keynote speaker John Hawks describes this study and harps on the New York Times reporting on his blog.


Bouchard, C., et al. Genomic predictors of maximal oxygen uptake response to standardized exercise training programs. Journal of Applied Physiology in press.

Gene doping

Doping among elite athletes may have reached a new level…

As laid out by Discovery News, some athletes are trying to “turn on molecular switches inside the body’s own DNA to produce more oxygen-carrying blood or creating bigger muscle cells.” In essence, people are trying to make the genes that code for oxygen carrying capacity or muscle cell development work harder and faster. Scientists are in the process of developing a test for this sort of thing that may be in use before the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is the potential side effects. For example, mice that were genetically modified to produce more red blood cells (whose major job is to carry oxygen throughout the body) actually died of stroke because too many cells were being created. In another example, experts suspect that modifying the genes that code for muscle cell creation may only work on part of the body–you could have a super buff right arm and a normal left arm, for instance.