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Sports Med. 2011 Oct 1;41(10):845-59. doi: 10.2165/11593200-000000000-00000.

Genetic influences in sport and physical performance.

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UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, London, UK.


The common inheritance of approximately 20 000 genes defines each of us as human. However, substantial variation exists between individual human genomes, including 'replication' of gene sequences (copy number variation, tandem repeats), or changes in individual base pairs (mutations if <1% frequency and single nucleotide polymorphisms if >1% frequency). A vast array of human phenotypes (e.g. muscle strength, skeletal structure, tendon elasticity, and heart and lung size) influences sports performance, each itself the result of a complex interaction between a myriad of anatomical, biochemical and physiological systems. This article discusses the role for genetic influences in influencing sporting performance and injury, offering specific exemplars where these are known. Many of these preferable genotypes are uncommon, and their combination even rarer. In theory, the chances of an individual having a perfect sporting genotype are much lower than 1 in 20 million - as the number of associated polymorphisms increase, the odds decrease correspondingly. Many recently discovered polymorphisms that may affect sports performance have been described in animal or other human based models, and have been included in this review if they may apply to athletic populations. Muscle performance is heavily influenced by basal muscle mass and its dynamic response to training. Genetic factors account for approximately 50-80% of inter-individual variation in lean body mass, with impacts detected on both 'training-naive' muscle mass and its growth response. Several cytokines such as interleukin-6 and -15, cilliary neurotrophic factor and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) have myoanabolic effects. Genotype-associated differences in endocrine function, necessary for normal skeletal muscle growth and function, may also be of significance, with complex interactions existing between thyroxine, growth hormone and the downstream regulators of the anabolic pathways (such as IGF-1 and IGF-2). Almost 200 polymorphisms are known to exist in the vitamin D receptor (VDR) gene. VDR genotype is associated with differences in strength in premenopausal women. VDR expression decreases with age and VDR genotype is associated with fat-free mass and strength in elderly men and women. Muscle fibre type determination is complex. Whilst initial composition is likely to be strongly influenced by genetic factors, training has significant effects on fibre shifts. Polymorphisms of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α (PPARα) gene and R577x polymorphism of the ACTN3 gene are both associated with specific fibre compositions. Alterations in cardiac size have been associated with both increased performance and excess cardiovascular mortality. PPARα is a ligand-activated transcription factor that regulates genes involved in fatty acid uptake and oxidation, lipid metabolism and inflammation. Psychology plays an important role in training, competition, tolerance of pain and motivation. However, the role of genetic variation in determining psychological state and responses remains poorly understood; only recently have specific genes been implicated in motivational behaviour and maintenance of exercise. Thyroid hormone receptors exist within the brain and influence both neurogenesis and behaviour. With the current state of knowledge, the field of genetic influences on sports performance remains in its infancy, despite over a decade of research.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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