Epigenomics research: carving out a space between talent and effort Is genetic screening effective in producing gold medalists?

February 25, 2021

Olympics, Paralympics and UTokyo
Research, education and legacies related to the sporting event
The Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo for the first time in more than half a century. The University of Tokyo, which is also located in the metropolis, has a long history of involvement with the Games. As you learn about UTokyo’s contributions to this global sporting event, the blue used in the Olympic and Paralympic emblem may very well start to take on the light blue hue of the University’s school color.

Epigenomics research: carving out a space between talent and effort
Is genetic screening effective in producing gold medalists?

Yuki Okada
Associate Professor, Institute for Quantitative Biosciences
Attendees at the Science Cafe meeting included Visiting Professor Akira Ikegami from the Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, who served as moderator, the “samurai hurdler” Dai Tamesue, and Executive Vice President of UTokyo Masaki Sakaida, an individual who has worked hard to improve Japanese sports organizations.

UTokyo’s Institute for Quantitative Biosciences has been holding a “Science Cafe” where scientists and members of the general public gather and chat over coffee. For the third Science Cafe event, held at the Nagatacho GRiD in Tokyo in October 2019, the theme of the discussion was “the Olympics from a life sciences perspective.” The speaker at this meeting was Associate Professor Yuki Okada, a researcher investigating the transmission mechanisms of genetic information in reproductive cells and particularly sperm. In view of the increasingly widespread use of screening kits in recent years, conversation turned to the compelling question of whether genetic screening can be effective in producing talented athletes.

“Genetic screening is capable of identifying certain traits or tendencies, such as whether a person has excellent powers of endurance or agility or a strongly competitive mindset. However, that does not tell us, for example, whether a person with a genotype conferring superior agility will actually succeed as a sprint runner or not. The conclusions from long-term comparative studies of twins say environmental factors have much stronger influence than genetic factors in this context.”

Nevertheless, athletes with a parent that excels in track and field, soccer or basketball, or who is from an ethnic group known for its physical ability, do in fact perform well. So, is this attributable chiefly to genetic factors?

“The truth is that the epigenome wields major influence over the expression of genetic information. The epigenome is like a set of tags or bookmarks attached to the genome. “Epi” is a prefix that conveys the meaning of upon, over or outside. Although the genome itself does not change, the epigenome can undergo changes influenced by the environment. This is why it is so important that children be provided with an appropriate environment.”

Okada speculates that the epigenome may be an even stronger influence in the context of sports that involve complex movement, especially team sports or sports that utilize certain tools or gear. She adds that some research findings have shown that parents do genetically transfer the epigenome to their children. The research that attempts to cross the information of genome and epigenome may encourage the debut of future generations of athletes with talents comparable to the likes of Rui Hachimura or Kei Nishikori. That was the mood and atmosphere that prevailed at the Science Cafe in Nagatacho that evening.


* This article was originally printed in Tansei 40 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of March 2020.

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