I’ve been pretty vocal about the impending specter of genetic paternalism in relation to personal genomics, which I believe to be futile in the long term, and likely to squelch innovation in the United States in the short term. Like any new product category there’s a lot of hype and confusion in the area of personal genomics, but I think it’s important that we allow some mistakes and misfires to occur. Innovation and creativity isn’t failure-free.
With that said, I also think it is incumbent upon the personal genomics community, if there is such a thing, to “police” the flow of information. I have seen references in the media to a new personal genomics kit, Sports X Factor, selling for $180, from AIBioTech. My initial intent was to ignore this, as there is real science and tech to be covered. This is just another case of a biotech firm trying to leverage public confusion and gullibility into revenue. But if I think such a thing, I should make my opinion known, shouldn’t I?
So here’s the bottom line: If you don’t want to waste $180, don’t purchase a Sports X Factor kit, it’s just not worth the money. You can see a representative mainstream media report at The Washington Post. Because of the nature of how objectivity works it seems clear that they went looking for quotes from people who could express what’s going on here: this firm is hoodwinking gullible parents with a little extra money and time to throw around. The Sports X Factor kit is not worth the cost unless you want some psychic validation. The story strongly hints that some parents are just falling prey to confirmation bias.
Of course athleticism is substantially heritable. That is, how well you do does have a pretty significant basis in your genetics. But the most effective way to figure out your potentiality is free: look at your parents. The Sports X Factor test results summary page looks really confusing and quasi-scientific to me. More geared to impress customers with a barrage of numeracy than give cautious odds with huge error bars. How much of the variance in the population do these genes control? Not much last I checked. Three of the scientific references in the sample test results are to papers on which Dr Daniel MacArthur is a co-author. So let me quote some sage advice from him:
Beyond “the gene for speed”
I’m certainly not arguing here that genetics doesn’t play any role in Bolt’s success – or in the remarkable over-representation of West African descendents in Olympic short-distance track events, or the similarly impressive skew towards East Africans among marathon runners. In fact I think most geneticists would be staggered if this was the case, even though direct evidence for underlying genes is currently very thin on the ground.
Rather, my point is that an excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance. This suggestion goes against everything we’ve learnt about the genetics of complex traits from recent genome-wide association studies, which have revealed that quantitative traits (like height and body weight) are frequently influenced by dozens to hundreds of genes, each of small effect; if anything, it’s likely that athletic performance will be even more genetically complex than these traits. The ACTN3-centred argument also dismisses the importance of Jamaica’simpressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes, the effects of a culture that idolises local track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
It is almost certainly true that Usain Bolt carries at least one of the “sprint” variants of the ACTN3 gene, but then so do I (along with around five billion other humans worldwide). Indeed, I’m fortunate enough to be lugging around two “sprint” copies – but that doesn’t mean you’ll see me in the 100 metre final in London in 2012. Unfortunately for me, it takes a lot more than one lucky gene to create an Olympian.
The underlying science here does not buttress the marketing. If you want to fine tune your work-out, engage in personal self-experimentation and see what works for you! Ask your family members what their experience has been, they share your genes to a large degree. Genomics just isn’t going to add that much value. Allocate the extra money for personal training sessions or protein bars or something.