Posted on December 1, 2004

Endurance Running Is In East Africans’ Genes

New Scientist, Nov. 29

The long-distance running prowess of Ethiopia’s elite male athletes is partly dictated by their genes.

Researchers have established that such athletes are more likely to have certain variants of four Y chromosome genes compared with other Ethiopians. No one knows what the genes do, or how influential they are, but they are the first to be linked to east Africans’ outstanding ability for endurance events.

Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes have run 37 of the 40 fastest times recorded over 10,000 metres. Alongside dedication and training, there is no doubt that social and geographic factors, such as having to run long distances to school at high altitudes, contribute to their success.

To find out if genes also play a significant role, Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science at the University of Glasgow in the UK and colleagues studied the Y chromosomes of elite athletes, city dwellers and other non-athletes from the Ethiopian region of Arsi, where many runners originate.

Four gene variants were clearly more common among the athletes, and one was less common. No mutation was unique to the athletes, however, suggesting that it is the combination of certain gene types that makes the difference.

“The athletes do show differences from the population as a whole,” says Pitsiladis. “But they are not so overwhelming to say that this is the reason for their success,” he says, and no single gene for endurance running emerged.

The team, whose results will be published in Human Genetics, are hoping to bolster their findings by analysing Kenyan endurance athletes in the same way.