Field of Genes: DNA Testing to Find Future Olympic Champions
Organised by Nowgen
Museum of Science and Industry, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester M3 4FP, UK
Tuesday 25 October 2011
Would you let your 10-year-old child sit out of PE classes if they were not built for sport? Would it inspire you to do better if you found out your genes indicated that you're not likely to succeed at it? Or would it demoralise you to the point that you give up on something you love? These were the kinds of questions I left this event, organised by Nowgen as part of Manchester Science Festival, thinking about.
Swill, dribble, salt, soap and warm. This is how the evening started, with a quick five-step guide to extracting our DNA. As we watched strings of this elusive hereditary molecule slowly materialising, we were given an introduction to the new genetic tests that can, and are, being used to distinguish between those who are and aren't made for sport.
It was during this surreal moment, with us holding our pots of warm spit, that it became apparent just what a fantastic mixture of people this event attracted. Some people, clearly with a science background, were less interested in the crash course in A-level genetics, and were looking through the tray of pipettes and tubes on the table. Others, keen to learn more, listened intently to the talk of nucleotides and base pairs. The event was chaired by Dr Bella Starling — Director of Public Programmes at Nowgen and a recent appointment to the Human Genetics Commission. Everyone was given a name tag when they arrived, and the tables were arranged in circles, which really helped people from all walks of life, regardless of previous science knowledge, come together and discuss, even if they didn't always agree.
Links were made to the London 2012 Olympics and the potential that this test has for choosing a future champion. In my mind at least, doubts were in place about how effective these tests could be; how can we possibly test for sportiness? But, as was soon explained to me, we can — in fact, genes have been discovered which directly relate to fast twitch fibres (parts of the muscle associated with short distance, powerful activities). However, as soon as we got on to talking about specific DNA tests, such as the new 'X factor tests' it became apparent that a lot more research needs to be done before these quick and simple DNA tests have any real scientific merit.
Dr Alun Williams, who is the Director of the Sports Genetics Laboratory at Manchester Metropolitan University, presented a number of concerns about the current DNA tests offered over the Internet. He mentioned that the reports sometimes contain errors, and the company offers no aftercare if the test reveals something negative, such as a predisposition for a genetic disease. As well as this, not all of the genes the test examines have a proven link to athleticism, and these controversial genes mean the results are not to be taken seriously yet. However, his presentation put heavy emphasis on nature, rather than nurture, being the most important pathway to success.
Rebecca Guy, Olympic level swimmer, thinks differently. The Manchester-based athlete, who trains for 25 hours a week, is certain her success is based on the nurturing of both her body and mind. She argued that neither of her parents are particularly sporty (even though it is later revealed that they are a lot more active than most) and that her coach drills into her that it's 100 percent nurture. She emphasised something that I had never considered before, that sport is not just about the body — the mind is equally important and requires nurturing as well. Rebecca maintained that, with enough training and motivation, the mind will allow anyone (sporty background or not) to become elite.
Rebecca said she sat on the fence regarding the tests. On the one hand she thought that if you 'failed' the sporty test, you would be in danger of losing funding (which is crucial for athletes as only major meets pay good money), but on the other she liked the idea of working even harder to prove the test wrong, if the results were bad.
The group discussions that followed nicely summed up the evening. People decided that our involvement in sport was down to personal choice, not what a test told us to do. One controversial topic asked what would happen if a test was available for 10-year-olds to see how well-suited they were for sports. If they got a bad result should they be allowed to miss all PE? Some people thought that time should be spent doing something the child was good at, but is PE really only to encourage a future in sport? Surely it is also for enjoyment and physical activity.
The evening ended in the same it began — asking for a show of hands to say who would take this 'X factor sports' DNA test. By the end of the evening the number had gone down quite a lot. This may have been because our opinion on the nature V nurture debate changed, or because we had lost whatever faith we had in these tests. Either way, every single person left that room, in one way or another, feeling a little bit different about genetics.