By Lata Jha:
Are you training yourself or your kid to become the perfect athlete? While the attributes for one may be many, “The Sports Gene”, a new book by David Epstein seems to seek a lot of answers. It describes for us the “Superbaby”.
Superbaby was born around the turn of this century, emerging in a fit of twitches and shudders. The doctors’ first thought was epilepsy, until they noticed that although Superbaby was the size of any newborn, his biceps were chiselled and his skin was held tight around his calves. But by age four, he had twice as much muscle as other boys his age, and could hold a six-pound dumbbell, horizontally, at arm’s length. Laboratory analysis found that the secret to Superbaby’s extraordinary physique was an extremely rare genetic mutation, passed on from his mother who was a successful sprinter, which inhibited myostatin, a protein that limits muscle growth.
But the harsh and disappointing reality that the book puts forward is that there are no real answers to the questions of what genetic traits guarantee athletic success, or whether training can truly help to overcome inborn limitations.
If we have an understanding of which genetic components lead to superior athletic performance, the question is are we at a point where humans can be bred to become athletes? Epstein takes two hundred pages to get to this question, and when he does, he starts with animals. Mushers in the Iditarod who claim they have bred huskies not only for speed and endurance but masochism tell us that they have an ability to breed dogs who are not only able to run for long periods, but who want to do nothing else. Thoroughbred race horses, meanwhile, have been bred for speed so successfully that their times have begun to plateau, and Epstein speculates they may have reached their peak speed, in other words, that breeders have simply run out of genetic traits to exploit.
Could the same be done with humans? Certain athletic records may seem unbeatable but others are broken regularly. Not all legends are really invincible. There is always room for improvement. Technology today often helps us achieve the impossible. It’s interesting because scientists have already produced fertile eggs from mouse stem cells, allowing for the possibility that, one day soon, humans will be able to manipulate specific traits for their children.