Genetic Engineering for the Preteen Set

Was our 6-year-old daughter's grueling gymnastics regimen ever going to pay off? A simple cheek swab could tell us everything we needed to know.

But if she’s really great at this—and the kid clearly has some chops—then shouldn’t we push her as far as her talent will take her? Or, even better, what if there was some way to know if Lola may have a future at this? What if there were a test, a genetic screening of some kind, to see if she, you know, has a disposition for this?

When it comes to youth sports, we have always been armchair geneticists. When we see a promising Little League pitcher, don’t we always wonder if his father played high-school ball, Legion ball or maybe even college or lower minors, and then extrapolate from there? Don’t we discretely take the measure of a promising basketball player’s mother and father to divine how tall this talented fifth grader might yet grow? What is that but genetics of the most basic, Mendelian kind, the assumption that athleticism is passed down from father and mother to son and daughter, like the pigment in green or albino pea pods? But despite our careful scrutiny, if it is still a genetic lottery, why isn’t Michael Jordan’s son more like Mike? Why wasn’t Jose Canseco’s identical twin brother good enough to stick it out in the major leagues? Obviously, our genomic inheritance does not entirely define us and our athletic prowess. But we know it plays a part, a big part.

And that is where my experiment with Atlas Genetics comes in. Atlas, a Boulder, Colo., company that previously specialized in growth supplements, last year introduced a take-at-home test that detects the presence of a variant of the ACTN3 gene that blocks the expression of the alpha-actinin-e protein. This protein, expressed in both copies of the gene, one from each parent, is associated with fast-twitch muscle movements and is present in a high percentage of elite athletes, as many as 50 percent of a pool of 107 sprint athletes tested by geneticists in 2003. In results published by that team in the American Journal of Human Genetics, only 6 percent of the elite athletes had this protein blocked in both copies of their genes.

What this means, according to Atlas founder Kevin Reilly, 55, a former football player and power lifter who competed in both sports at the University of Northern Colorado, is that this test can help to determine how likely you or your offspring are to become elite, “sprint, power and strength” athletes. In other words, the best athletes among us, to a higher degree, lack this variant and so express this protein and, possibly, are therefore faster and stronger.

What Atlas seems to be offering, in other words, is the possibility that you can ascertain the likelihood that the junior-with-the-good-jump-shot is 9 years old going on Lebron. With college as expensive as it is and youth sports leagues as sophisticated as they are, why wouldn’t you want to know if your little tiger has the game to, say, become Tiger, or at least win a college scholarship? Though Mr. Reilly is very quick to stress that this test should be a part of a complete evaluation process—vertical leap, 10-yard dash, a lateral side-to-side speed drill—he says that it is very hard to do those evaluations on an 8-year-old because they don’t have the motor skills yet. This test requires nothing more than a saliva swab. Mr. Reilly believes that his test should not be taken as the sole criteria in assessing a child’s likely athletic success: “If the only thing you use is the genetic marker and forget about the other tests, then you’re going to get it wrong.” But, he adds, for a parent who is “wondering if the $10,000 a year spent on hockey programs, travel and equipment for their 9-year old is a good investment,” wouldn’t they “be better to get into a sport where they might excel when they are 18?” And his tests help to identify those tendencies.

The implications, of course, are disturbing. Do we want to know this about our children? Do we want to think, while we watch our son or daughter walk a half-dozen consecutive batters: “Of course this is happening! What do you expect if you have the ATCN3 gene variant?” Extrapolate further. As we bring to bear ever greater levels of resolution on the genome, locating and identifying the proteins and amino acids that make for beauty or intelligence, do we really want to be able to test our children for each of those traits?

This debate rages beyond the confines of sport, yet it seems that here in our little leagues and gyms is where the first real-world application is happening. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s test a 1-year-old and see if they have the genetic potential to be the next superstar,” cautions Mr. Reilly. Yet that is exactly what will happen, as some parents decide they want to know if this is time and money well spent. Where does this end? Boyd Epley, the founder of the University of Nebraska strength-training program and a consultant for Atlas, admits to worrying about the potential misunderstandings. “One guy wrote in and asked if the kid didn’t have the correct gene, should you euthanize him?” Mr. Epley believes that the test provides information, nothing more. “What you do with it is up to you.” Other countries, notably China, are starting to take these tests even more seriously than the U.S., and may soon begin applying the results as part of their athletic screening processes. “This is the future of sports; this will be part of the talent evaluation process going forward,” says Mr. Epley.

But some specialists in the field describe the process as being more primitive and less conclusive. “I think the bottom line is that there is no single gene that is identified that is the gene for athletic capability,” says Theodore Friedman, the director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center’s gene therapy program. “And there will be no such gene. … There are some correlations, but these are absolutely not predictive values.”