At this past Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games, some of the fastest and strongest people in the world showed us what humans in peak physical condition can accomplish.
Some think that athletes who are the best of the best could already be pushing up against the limits of what’s physically possible. At least one researcher claims that Usain Bolt in 2009 already came within .1 second of the fastest possible time for the 100 meter dash.
But we’re not even close to peak human performance, according to Stephen Hsu, a physicist who is the vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University and an advisor to the genomics researchers at BGI. Hsu is a member of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab, a research group that’s trying to unlock the genetic codes that account for complex traits like height, obesity risk, and intelligence.
Writing in Nautilus, Hsu argues that athletes like Bolt represent our current-day genetic outliers, people who are so uniquely adapted for their sports that they leave their competition in the dust. Training, nutrition, and equipment clearly make a huge difference, but scientists have written that Bolt has changed our ideas about what physical characteristics a top sprinter needs.
“The whole enterprise of competitive athletics has been, in effect, a search algorithm for genetic outliers, but it’s been running for less than a century, and it hasn’t been particularly efficient,” Hsu writes. “Its approach has been to passively wait for random recombinations to produce those variants, and hope that athletic programs find the best individuals.”
Hsu thinks that we’re headed towards a future where we’ll be choosing preferred genetic variants for our children soon. Not long after that, he thinks we could start actually editing our DNA to achieve optimal variants (like intelligence, which Hsu talked to us about in June).
In theory, this could make this “search algorithm for genetic outliers” much more efficient — we won’t just find those outliers, we’ll make them.
What we might change
For complex traits like intelligence or athletic ability, there are probably thousands of genetic variants that make a difference. In many cases, we’re just starting to learn how large numbers of genes interact to help code for these traits, and there’s still a lot that we don’t know. Figuring those things out are the main goals of some major initiatives, but it’s hard to say exactly when we’ll really know the genetic codes that fully explain these sorts of traits.
Still, we have already identified some particularly fascinating traits that simple variations can account for. A few code for characteristics that we might associate with real-life superheroes: incredibly strong bones, disease resistance, or particularly powerful muscles. In other cases, we’ve pinned down at least some of the genes that code for things like fast-twitch muscle fibers — essential for sprinters like Bolt.
Many researchers think it won’t be long until we can use the tool CRISPR, which functions like a search and replace tool for DNA, to provide people (or perhaps human embryos) with these traits.
But even if designing humans in that way still sounds far-fetched, it’s fairly easy to see how some sort of genetic selection could happen in the near future, starting with being choosier about the embryos selected for in vitro fertilization.
As Hsu has previously told us, technicians and doctors already engage in some degree of embryo selection when choosing embryos for IVF. If we start using more careful selection to choose embryos that are free of disease in the near future, how big of a jump is it before people choose the healthy embryo that also might have a greater chance of being a star athlete?
Will it work?
For now, we still don’t actually know that genetic manipulation will lead to better athletes. It certainly seems like a real possibility, and we know that sports officials are already concerned about gene doping — manipulating genes for a performance boost.
But there’s still a question about how much the record-setting performances of present day athletes like Bolt and Michael Phelps can be attributed to their “genetic outlier” status.
Athletes are indeed achieving faster records and stronger performances than ever before, Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician and Mayo Clinic researcher who is one of the world’s top experts on fitness and human performance, recently explained to Business Insider. But those achievements may largely come from the fact that we’ve figured out how to train and compete more effectively, and we do so with better technology.
Bolt has definitely run the 100m race faster than any previous human. But as as David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” points out in a TED Talk, earlier competitors were running on cinder tracks with relatively poorly designed shoes.
If Jesse Owens, who tied the 100m world record in 1936, were to run against Bolt on a modern track and in state-of-the-art track spikes, much of Bolt’s lead might evaporate.
So maybe that search for modern day genetic outliers has not actually found people who are all that much faster or stronger than ever before — maybe.
Sure, some of today’s top performers, like Katie Ledecky, seem they really are true outliers. But Hsu’s argument doesn’t depend on finding all the true outliers right now, he’s just saying that the genetic technology of the future will ensure that there are more people who are predisposed to becoming better athletes then than there have been in the past. And that seems entirely possible — probable even.
It might be a long time before people are comfortable with editing the genes of their children. Many people now wouldn’t even be comfortable modifying their own genes to increase their athletic abilities. But if we look at the history of sport, there are always going to be people willing to try something new to achieve something that’s never been done before.
And that, combined with ever-advancing technology and training techniques, may have just as big an impact on athletic performance as Hsu thinks.
Today, we may be far from the limits of human athletic performance. But we could be getting closer to the post-human era, where we modify our own genetics to the point that we’re less recognizably “human” than ever before.