GENE MAVEN Five years ago, Deon Venter was an expert in diseases, not sports. As chief pathologist for the Melbourne-based company Genetic Technologies, he focused on genetic links to breast cancer and epilepsy. But something happened to change all that.
In 2003 a group of researchers analyzed a single gene among 429 Australian athletes and found that sprinters and other power performers were far likelier to have a version of the gene that produced high levels of a protein used to help muscles generate force at high speed. Elite athletes in endurance events like long-distance running were more likely to have a version that left them deficient in the protein.
Venter, 51 and a triathlete, took the gene test immediately. "Questions I'd mulled over for years were answered, quite literally, in about a minute," he says. He had the version of the gene that produced none of the key power protein. And sure enough, he'd never had great results at the gym, but he once won a U.K. triathlon, he says, because he was able to keep his pace in the grueling final miles.
Venter had Genetic Technologies secure the rights to the test, and in 2004 the company launched it commercially. Today, with a quick swab of the inside of a cheek, customers around the world can have the relevant gene tested.
Sure, athletic performance is about much more than one gene. Venter sees genotyping as simply a tool that can help athletes tailor their strategies to their aptitudes. He knows he can train for the triathlon more effectively, for example, by nailing his swim technique than by working on the sprint finish. For now, Venter is already planning his next project: a start-up firm that could give customers sophisticated genetic information about not just sports performance but also weight regulation and blood-sugar levels. Eventually, he hopes, it will offer new insights into the fight against obesity. Now that sounds more like pathologists' work.