The Engineer's Notebook Blog

The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

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Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

Posted March 25, 2009 12:00 AM by Sharkles

Having a baby used to be simple. There was no way of knowing the sex, health, or potential ability until the baby was welcomed into the world. Society and technology have come a long way since then. In part one of this series, we learned that people can screen embryos not only for diseases and disorders, but also for gender.

The company that planned to offer parents an opportunity to select their baby's hair and eye color has since suspended its program, but is this offering gone forever? Many would say no, and that the issue will appear again in various ways. For some, selecting cosmetic traits for their child may not be the most important issue. But what if you could find out what natural abilities your baby will be born with?

That is where Atlas Sports Genetics comes into play. According to its website, Atlas Genetics (the "Atlas" is an acronym for Athletic Talent Laboratory Analysis System) determines the level of the ACTN3 gene, which may provide insight into what kind of athlete a child was born to become.

What is ACTN3?

Alpha-actinin-3 is a protein in humans that is encoded by the ACTN3 gene, depending on the variant. All humans have two copies of the ACTN3 gene – one from each parent. Like many genes, ACTN3 can take two completely different paths: the R variant or the X variant. The R variant of ACTN3 allows the body to produce the alpha-actinin-3 protein, which builds more fast-twitch muscles. The X variant blocks the protein.

According to researchers, people who inherit two sets of the R variant could be naturally engineered for power sports like football, weight lifting, sprinting, etc. People carrying two copies of the X variant are said to have better stamina. "Mixed pattern people", those with one copy of the X variant, may have a natural endurance while excelling in power sports.

How Does the Test Work?

Atlas offers a range of home-analysis tests that are dependent on the child's age. To administer the test, parents swab the inside of the child's mouth with two cotton swabs, seal the swabs in a bag, and then mail the bag to Atlas' Australian lab.

Although the prospects for this research seems promising to some, many experts remain skeptical and would like to see more research done before the test. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Theodore Friedmann, director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center's interdepartmental gene therapy program, referred to ACTN3 testing as "an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil."

"This may or may not be quite that venal, but I would like to see a lot more research done before it is offered to the general public, "said Friedmann. "I don't deny that these genes have a role in athletic success, but it's not that black and white."

Setting High Expectations?

Scattered genetic experts, therapists, and coaches worry that if parents find out their child is genetically predisposed to excel in a specific type of event or sport, the parents will then push the child too hard. William Morgan, an expert on the philosophy of ethics and sport, shares this worry. "This just contributes to the madness about sports because there are some parents who will just go nuts over the results…The problem here is that the kids are not old enough to make rational autonomous decisions about their own life," he said.

What do you think?



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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/25/2009 11:53 PM

Soon we can make the "boys from Brazil"?

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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/26/2009 2:11 AM

Hair and eye color don't matter, right? So then it shouldn't matter if people choose a certain hair or eye color. Doesn't help or hurt anyone.
People should have the right to control their own genes.

How is this like Gattaca or Nazis?? This is randomization. People are individuals. They won't all choose the same, and if we had a state party telling people what they could and couldn't do with their own bodies and genes, that would be the real state-controlled situation. So, as long as it's in the hands of individuals and not the government, I don't see anything wrong with it.


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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/26/2009 3:58 AM

Yes, if it was about people "managing" their own genes, that would be just fine. The only trick here is that they are managing someone else's genes.

In other words, your parents could decide how you would look or what your physical abilities would be. Say they are not the usual type of parent and they don't want you to be athletic (that might distract you from more intellectual activities, for example). And because of your personality, you really enjoy playing volleyball. It can become very frustrating if you cannot pursue a professional career in your chosen field because you are not physically fit and you get tired after 5min of playing.

So your parents ideas and beliefs have limited your opportunities in life. And you had absolutely no say whatsoever. But then again, those were their genes, so they could of done no matter what out of you, right?

I don't think so....

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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/26/2009 8:11 AM

There have been plenty of studies (and even a Dilbert cartoon) that point up that taller, "beautiful" people have better chances of success than plain folk. Personally I would love to have "selected out" my nearsightedness, at least. Gattica indeed.

I think the risk of the tests is that there will be a lot more termination of "sub optimal" pregnancies. It would be better if we went right from testing to adjusting. Either way the social implications are enormous.

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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/26/2009 9:20 AM

I'm not too concerned about eye color, but I sure wish I didn't have this awful vision. A family history of glasses and contacts wearers is proof enough, though.

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Re: Knowing Exactly What You Want For Your Baby (Part 2)

03/28/2009 1:12 AM

Hey Sharkles -

Fascinating topic you're blogging about:

I've got to geek out here, and share a YouTube video of OMD's "Genetic Engineering" music video from 1983 with folks following your blog, off the much under-rated Dazzleships album. An Optical Engineer introduced me to these pioneers of electronica way back in the mid-eighties. I think this clip could be a musical back-drop for your series. :)

More seriously, "read-only" genetic technologies don't scare me as much as laboratory manipulation of genes you described in part one, for those who can "handle the truth". :) DNA database privacy would be my biggest concern with this type of genetic technology:

For example, I know the UK has been collecting DNA samples from criminals and suspects for years now, and they've already ran into instances where they profiled innocent relatives as suspects - and arrested them - based on the actions of someone in their database.

As long as a caring, responsible parent had full control over the privacy of the DNA sample/test results, and the company performing the analysis was strictly regulated by a U.S. state or federal authority, I'd have no problem with a parent fully-knowing the athletic or other genetic potential a child has. If an Australian company would like to do business in the profitable U.S. market, it would have to adhere to U.S. regulation.

I think a strong case can be made that a parent would want to know, in addition to positive abilities like athleticism or academic ability, if their child also has a future likelihood of a genetic illness like breast cancer or leukemia. Screening for health reasons is more interesting for me as a parent. The athletic or academic stuff would become self-evident to me over time, but I wouldn't fault folks who would want this information. All this information could be derived from a single screening test.

Would this lead to athletic coaches, college admissions officers, insurance companies or employers also wanting this same information? Maybe, but that's another discussion.

My two cents.

- Larry

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