The first full sequencing of the human genome was achieved in 2003 at a cost of $2.7 billion. Jump 10 years into the future and the whole process can now be accomplished for just $1000!
We have found many useful applications for this technology in understanding and treating several diseases and it may even play a role in identifying individuals who may be at risk of sudden cardiac death in sport.
The technology has unfortunately also been grabbed up by commercial companies who are targeting athletes, parents and coaches and claim to be able to tell you all sorts of wonderful things.
The sports medicine community is so worried about this direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA testing in sport that it has prompted them to publish a consensus statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
What’s the problem with direct-to-consumer DNA testing in sport?
Some of the claims on these companies’ websites include:
“Gives parents and coaches early information on their child's genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports”
“Personalise your training based on your sports genetics results”
You may wonder “So what’s the problem?”. The first problem is that while scientists have made big advances in running the test (hence the lower cost), they still don’t quite understand exactly what the results mean.
A second problem is that as with most new technologies, legislation is still lagging behind. These type of tests have to be performed under very specific conditions if you want to get accurate results. The UK, for instance, do not currently have any legislation that can control the quality of these tests by private companies.
Companies can also market tests without having to validate the claims they make!
This means that they can tell you that little Johnny may very well become the next Wayne Rooney because they have found x, y and z in his DNA, without actually having any research evidence to prove that x, y and z can predict his future level of performance!
These companies frequently offer you nutritional and training advice based on your genetic data and of course advise that you buy their suppliments etc. etc. ($$$). The researchers in the BJSM point out that the evidence that this type of advice is based on is currently extremely weak.
The researchers warn that one should also not forget about the potential psychological, social and financial risks genetic testing may hold when used for talent identification. These tests may steer young children to make life altering choices with little or no evidence to back them up.
My gut also tells me that the type of parent who sends their little Johnny's spit off for analysis are very likely to already be a pushy parent. These test can easily lead to parents and coaches putting more stress on kids to train harder and perform. It can potentially cause children to focus only on one type of sport because they 'have the genes for it' while they would be much better off developing their bodies through taking part in several different sports and specialising later in life. Research has also shown that young athletes risk burnout and overuse injuries if they focus on just one sport.
Is there any scientific evidence that genetic testing can identify talent in sport?
Most of the genes thought to contribute to athletic performance have not been properly studied.
Certain genes have been found to be associated with endurance performance (ACE ll genotype) and speed and power performance (ACTN3 RR genotype). Thing is, that approximately 20 million people in the UK have the RR genotype, but only a tiny percentage of them are elite athletes. Researchers suggest that the presence of the RR genotype explain less than 1% of the variability in sprint performance in athletes.
Can you now understand how it may be seen as misleading when a company tells you that you have the ability to become an elite sprinter due to the presence of the RR genotype in your DNA?!
Summary from the consensus statement:
There is currently no evidence that existing genetic tests provide information that is useful regarding either
predisposition for a particular sport,
prediction of the training response likely to occur to a particular training programme,
or predisposition to exercise-related injury.
The researchers conclude that: “Based on the published scientific evidence, the information provided by DTC (direct-to-consumer genetic testing) is virtually meaningless for prediction and/or optimisation of sport performance.”
A Mehran Mostafavifar, Thomas M Best, Greg D Myer. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long-term problems? Br J Sports Med 2013;47:17 1060-1061 Published Online First: 20 December 2012 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-092005
Nick Webborn, Alun Williams, Mike McNamee, et al. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification: Consensus statement. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:23 1486-1491 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095343