Epigenetics In Sports: From Queen Bee To ACTN3

epigenetics in sports

You have probably heard the term nature vs. nurture. That’s typical when discussing whether genetics or environment more determines your attributes and behaviors. Epigenetics helps explain how both work together to affect your performance in training and beyond.

Future of performance, health, and lifestyle?

Epigenetics, defined as heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations of the underlying DNA sequence, can directly influence individual differences in training adaptation. While it is not widely applied in elite sports yet, some exciting and provocative concepts could change athletic development’s future direction.

Specifically, heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. These epigenetic mechanisms allow cells and organisms to respond to environmental stimuli, stress, and certain diseases by altering their genetic activity.

Epigenetic changes, on the other hand, can be rapid and targeted, enabling an individual (not just a species) to adapt efficiently to changing environmental conditions. Environmental stimuli such as physical training or nutrition can cause epigenetic changes that subsequently influence how the individual reacts to other stimuli, such as a new training session.

Munz & Thiel, 2018

And as we know, athletes found using performance-enhancing drugs are punished by their sports for retroactive victories and some for several years after being caught. Now armed with a growing knowledgebase, a primary reason for more stringent penalties in the future is performance benefits likely have long-standing gains. Even after the acute use ‘wears off’. Enter the queen bee and her royal jelly.

Queen bee supplementation for status

Although identical in genetic sequence, queen bees and worker bees are entirely different in terms of their behavior, physiology, and appearance. Phenotypic differences between queen bees and worker bees abound.

Worker bees spend their days locating food, amassing pollen, supporting the hive, and battling invaders. While in stark contrast, queen bees spend theirs having food delivered and laying eggs to repopulate the hive. Queen bees:

  1. produce as many as 2,000 eggs in a single day
  2. are five times larger than workers
  3. typically live 20 times longer

The queen bee’s diet is very different from the worker bee’s. Whereas the worker bee gets all the nutrition it needs from pollen (its primary food source), the queen needs to eat royal jelly throughout its life to maintain its size and stature.

This contains 15 times more protein than regular honey and 21 times more lipids. The nutritional content of royal jelly promotes division and growth of the queen bee’s ovaries, which produce all the eggs in a colony. As well as providing nutrients, royal jelly has also been shown to have pharmacological properties such as antibacterial activity and immunosuppressive activity (Yamamoto et al., 1995). None of these pharmacological properties of royal jelly are present in regular honey, or pollen

And by merely lowering inhibited levels in recently hatched honeybee larvae, researchers have mimicked the effects of royal jelly, causing larvae initially destined to become worker bees to exhibit queen bee characteristics.

While epigenetic phenomena do not strictly dictate form and function in humans as they appear to in honeybees, researchers increasingly recognize a role for epigenetics in human development, performance, and disease prevention.

Training is not a one size fits all mindset

In high-level sports, performance enhancement results from many factors, including genetic predisposition, training, and nutrition strategies. More recently, the importance of epigenetics in skeletal muscle adaptations to physical activity has been highlighted in addition to these classic aspects. Adopting an epigenetic perspective enables us to recognize that some individuals have a more significant potential to enhance their performance than others, influencing training responsiveness.

So specific training forms, such as MICE (Moderate Intensity Continuous Exercise), or HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), might induce characteristic changes faster or better based upon the individual’s genetic makeup.

Either way, there are several indications that previous training episodes could induce a kind of ‘muscle-memory.’ This memory subsequently influences future responses to training. Even if the initial intervention occurred a long time ago, training stimuli could even potentially cause ‘biologically remembered’ changes for generations.

In essence, epigenetic changes may be used to influence how genes are regulated over an individual’s lifetime and can occur due to external factors, such as stress or poor diet—leading to an increased risk of disease from gene activation (“expression”) or gene silencing.

Nature with nurture is important.

While nature and nurture are separate entities, they are not mutually exclusive. Both are believed to play an integral part in the development of both physical and mental attributes. There is no right or wrong to the concept, and therefore it cannot be said that either nature or nurture is inferior to the other. Instead, each is crucial in shaping the outcomes associated with a vast array of factors, including genetics, gender, race, and socio-cultural environment.

The recognition of epigenetics as a component of innate behavior has provided researchers and practitioners alike with new insight into how physical activity contributes to developing healthy human societies in today’s world. Essentially, epigenetic studies help us understand the importance of exercise on health and disease – from the cellular level up.

So check your sprint gene for a lead.

There are a variety of genetic variations that influence athletic performance. Many are aware of Kathryn North and her team’s work on ACTN3 or the “Sprint gene,” during the turn of the century. But more recently, a relationship was found between the ACTN R577X and faster personal best 200m performances.

We suggest that epigenetic effects may also play a considerable role in the determination of athletic potential, and these effects will need to be studied using more sophisticated quantitative genetic models.

Tobias Ehlert et al

The ACTN3 gene has been associated with type IIX fibers, which are present in elite sprinters. In contrast, type IIA fibers are present in West Kenyans. Studies have shown that type IIX fibers are primarily responsible for explosive speed (i.e., sprinting). Therefore it is hypothesized that individuals with ACTN3 will have an advantage in sports that require short, fast bursts of power such as sprinting.

We consider epigenetic influences, such as genomic imprinting and epigenetic inheritance, as well as the life-long variability of epigenetic modification patterns and their potential impact on phenotype with special emphasis on traits related to physical performance.

Tobias Ehlert et al

Despite an apparent functional impact on muscle composition and athletic performance, the precise active influence of ACTN3 variation remains debatable. There is a lack of data from populations of African descent, and it remains unclear whether allelic variation at R577X is associated with endurance or explosive power.

As the role of epigenetics emerges

Whether we know it or not, whether we’ve heard about it before or not, our environment is constantly changing us in ways that aren’t always a direct result of our behavior. The foundation of these changes is laid down through training and nutrition.

The good news is, once again, epigenetics, or the study of changes in the expression of genes through environmental factors, might be able to tell us a few things about how best to manipulate our environment for the greatest chance of a positive outcome.

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