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Twin Res Hum Genet. 2008 Aug;11(4):384-94. doi: 10.1375/twin.11.4.384.

Why is alpha-actinin-3 deficiency so common in the general population? The evolution of athletic performance.

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  • 1Institute for Neuromuscular Research, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, Australia.


'We can now explain how this common genetic variation influences athletic performance as well as why it has become so common in the general population. There is a fascinating link between factors that influence survival in ancient humans and the factors that contribute to athletic abilities in modern man.' The human ACTN3 gene encodes the protein alpha-actinin-3, a component of the contractile apparatus in fast skeletal muscle fibers. In 1999, we identified a common polymorphism in ACTN3 (R577X) that results in absence of alpha-actinin-3 in more than one billion people worldwide, despite the ACTN3 gene being highly conserved during human evolution. In 2003, we demonstrated that ACTN3 genotype influences elite athletic performance, and the association between ACTN3 genotype and skeletal muscle performance has since been replicated in athletes and non-athlete cohorts. We have also studied the evolution of the R577X allele during human evolution and demonstrated that the null (X) allele has undergone strong, recent positive selection in Europeans and Asian populations. We have developed an Actn3 knockout mouse model that replicates alpha-actinin-3 deficiency in humans and has already provided insight into the role of alpha-actinin-3 in the regulation of skeletal muscle metabolism, fibre size, muscle mass and contractile properties. In particular, mouse muscle lacking alpha-actinin-3 uses energy more efficiently, with the fast fibers displaying metabolic and contractile properties of slow oxidative fibers. While this favors endurance activities, the trade off is that the muscle cannot generate the rapid contractions needed to excel in sprinting. We propose that the shift towards more efficient aerobic muscle metabolism associated with alpha-actinin-3 deficiency also underlies the adaptive benefit of the 577X allele. Our future studies will focus on the effect of ACTN3 genotype on response to exercise and ageing, and the onset and severity of muscle disease phenotype.

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