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How's This for Performance Enhancing?

The 2012 summer Olympic Games are set to start today in London — but according to a recent Nature article written by venture capitalists Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, the Olympics of the future could be entirely different from today's competition. There are gene variants known to be associated with athleticism, and Enriquez and Gullans write that "there is growing evidence that world-class athletes carry a minimum set of particular 'performance-enhancing' genes." They note that every male Olympic sprinter and power athlete tested has a certain variant of the gene ACTN3.

Enriquez and Gullans say they envision a future in which advances in and knowledge of genomics allow for athletes to be split into categories based on their genetic makeup, and whether they have certain variants that could contribute to their prowess in a given sport. "Are the games in fact a showcase for hardworking 'mutants'?" they write. "And if Olympic rule-makers admit that the genetic landscape is uneven, should they then test every athlete and hold separate competitions for the genetically ungifted?"

The authors also speculate as to whether genetic engineering — as another option after leaving the games as they are or using handicaps to level the playing field — could be used to enhance athletes' abilities. "A third option, if safe, would be to allow athletes who did not win the genetic lottery to 'upgrade' through gene therapy — a practice that is now banned as 'gene doping,'" they write. Olympic officials will likely start by banning any and all genetic modifications, just as they once banned professional athletes from participating, Enriquez and Gullans add. But eventually, they say, "safe genetic enhancements" will become commonplace.

(HT: Bob Grant at The Scientist's The Nutshell blog)

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