Allowing athletes to enhance their performance by using genetic engineering to manipulate their DNA may become a reality of future Olympic Games.

Jul 26, 2012
Bob Grant

Future Olympic athletes could be sorted into classes by their genetic makeup or even allowed to enhance their genomes through genetic engineering. This sci-fi scenario may one day become a reality thanks to the rapid-fire advances in the field of genomic technology and the ever-expanding knowledge of gene variants that contribute to success and dominance in sports, according to Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, two venture capitalists writing in last week's issue of Nature.

"Are the games in fact a showcase for hardworking 'mutants'?" they ask. "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?"

Enriquez and Gullans add that it will also be possible in the future to "allow athletes who did not win the genetic lottery to 'upgrade' through gene therapy—a practice that is now banned as 'gene doping.'"

Currently, there are more than 200 gene variants that research has associated with various athletic qualities, including the 577R allele of the gene ACTN3, which almost every Olympic sprinter and power athlete carries, and the I variant of the ACE gene, which is associated with success in long-distance running. Though it's unlikely to happen any time soon, Olympic organizers may one day embrace the genetic contribution to sporting prowess and account for such DNA differences in how they structure competitions or decide what types of enhancements are allowable, Enriquez and Gullans argue.

"Olympic traditions change glacially, but eventually, what was once unthinkable becomes commonplace," they write. "As officials struggle with the implications of genetic data and upgrades, we will probably see, initially, a set of draconian rules against gene modification. We expect that as genetic modification becomes more common, a gradual acceptance of safe genetic enhancements will follow."

Nature ran another piece recently that probed science's ability to tip the scales of competition. A feature article written by Helen Thompson gathers opinion from researchers who say that performance enhancing drugs could lead to a new era in sport, where super-charged athletes safely set new bars for human achievement with the help of modern pharmaceuticals. "If the goal is to protect health, then medically supervised doping is likely to be a better route" than banning all performance enhancing drugs outright, Andy Miah, a bioethicist at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr, told Thompson. "Better yet, the world of sport should complement the World Anti-Doping Agency with a World Pro-Doping Agency, the goal of which is to invest in safer forms of enhancement."

For the 2012 London Games, however, we'll have to settle for run of the mill, unenhanced, but still world-class, athletes competing for glory and our enjoyment—that is, if Olympic organizers can identify and bar drug or gene cheats from the contests. (See "Anti-Doping Research Gets Creative.")