Genomics has progressed rapidly within the last ten years, allowing geneticists to analyze a person’s complete genome. One of the more recent functions is to give individuals their chances for having certain diseases based on certain markers. This allows people to prepare for the worst and take preventative measures. However, this technology isn’t always being used positively. Some companies are abusing this advancement of genomics to sell shallow results to uninformed consumers.
The ability to analyze the information we gather from genomics hasn’t progressed as rapidly as genomics itself. For example, we can test an individual’s ACTN3 gene, but it is almost useless to then try to understand an individual’s athletic potential based on the test. This doesn’t stop a number of companies from advertising that they can tell a child their specific strengths and weaknesses in regards to athletic performance. Direct to consumer, or “DIY”, tests are being used to identify young talent and design training regimens that are best suited to each individual. Parents are submitting saliva samples of their children and sending them to the labs along with a hefty fee. However, most experts agree that the accuracy and overall usefulness of the tests is essentially zero. The majority of these tests study the ACTN3 gene, which, when studied in the past, has shown slight evidence of correlation to athletic performance (Genet, 2003). But that’s all it is. SLIGHT evidence. The gene is found in muscle fibers during explosive activities, and is therefore connected to an individual’s endurance and strength. However, nothing gives merit to its value as a predictor. Uninformed coaches, parents, and athletes are flocking to these tests, and relying on the results as a route to competing at the next level.
The companies that distribute these tests are bringing in hundreds of dollars for every sample. They then go on to sell training advice and supplements marketed to improve performance (Gonidio, 2016). This practice is highly unethical given that genetics experts insist that the ability to analyze the gene is not yet reliable and it isn’t even confirmed that the gene is at all indicative of an individual’s athletic ability. The concern about the spread of these tests is so strong that a panel of international experts published a statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in an effort to deter people from the tests. They concluded that the tests are not scientifically accurate enough to merit their widespread use.
Despite the widespread concern for these tests, little can be done to stop them at this point. The lawmaking process is slow, and gene sequencing technology has been progressing too rapidly for regulations to keep up. Regulation levels also vary by nations and it’s easy for these companies to establish themselves in nations where no control has been issued over genetic testing.
These genetic tests provide the means to choose a sport based on a single genetic marker. Imagine if Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, or Michael Phelps had switched sports because something in their genes told them they had potential to be great at a specific event. This is what these tests claim to be able to do. However, athletic ability doesn’t boil down to one aspect of an individual’s genetic makeup. What these tests fail to take into account is each individual’s musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems, their body type, power, let alone commitment level or hours of practice. Even if the tests could reliably predict endurance and strength, this would be a miniscule part of what goes into being an elite athlete.
The likelihood that a child is going to become an elite athlete is extraordinarily slim, so why would we tell kids to play specific sports based on unreliable testing? Kids should play the sports they enjoy, and will therefore train harder and more often. Genetic makeup is a huge factor in the potential of an athlete, but if we can’t accurately analyze the genes, there’s no use in manipulating a young kid’s training schedule or sport of choice based on genetic testing.