Gene Expression

Why are Jamaicans so fast?

I haven’t been watching the Olympics, but my news feeds are broad enough that I get a general sense of who is winning, and who is not. Over at Genetic Future Dan MacArthur has a post up, The gene for Jamaican sprinting success? No, not really:

And Bolt is not the only Jamaican to impress in short distance events in Beijing: the country’s women’s sprint team took all three medals in their 100 metre dash.

Naturally, these performances have provoked widespread speculation about the basis of Jamaica’s sprinting success, and the short-distance prowess of other populations of West African ancestry. One controversial suggestion has drawn the most headlines: that sprinting is in their genes, or rather in one gene in particular – variously referred to as “Actinen A” or “ACTN3″.

Comments

  1. #1 Reality Bites
    August 21, 2008

    When are people going to get away from the simplistic single gene approach and just start telling things how they are:

    All of the 100m sprinters are American/Caribbeans. All are West African in heritage. Those are the fastest people in the world, on average (in these events). They were artificially selected in slavery, making them even faster than they would have been otherwise.

    End of story. It’s so frickin’ obvious but people don’t want to state the very truth for fear of other conclusions, which may or may not be true. There’s no other explanation. Heck, they can even blame the “white man” for this one, too. What the hell, it’s perfect for everyone.

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 21, 2008

    Wouldn’t slavery select the slow ones? Slaves are decended from those Africans who got caught in the first place. And slavery itself didn’t select for speed; it put more emphasis on endurance.

  3. #3 jim
    August 21, 2008

    I wonder if and when real West Africans will start to challenge New World West Africans (ie blacks in the Americas) in sprinting. It would seem that only the most bare bones infrastructure would be necessary. Nigeria should be rich enough to afford a few decent coaches by now.

    So are New World West Africans genetically superior for sprinting than Old World West Africans? What was the selective pressure in slavery? Was it the initial capturing and selling? Or was it surviving the hard labor?

    The initial slave traders might have wanted endurance, but how did they actually choose slaves? Young, strong, healthy and male I’d guess. Seems plausible they selected out the more athletic. Was there enough feedback for the slave trading system to even learn who would have more endurance? I’m trying to imagine what a busy slave trader would look for hundreds of years ago for endurance. I guess healthiness and muscle. Do New World Africans have more muscle mass than the equivalent West Africans?

  4. #4 BikeMonkey
    August 21, 2008

    while you are pulling sheist out of your behind, lassi, you might as well speculate that the numerous Jamaican slave uprisings selected for speed. whee, isn’t making sheist up fun????

  5. #5 brc
    August 21, 2008

    don’t forget that the americans are soooo good at beach volleyball because they have that beach volleyball gene. it’s the only explanation. oh, and in the winter olympics nordics have the skiing gene. oh, and in the colonial games, the brits had the colonization gene. and why did americans enslave all those africans anyway? no doubt it was the enslavement gene.

  6. #6 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 21, 2008

    @BikeMonkey: Slave uprisings had no big impact on the gene pool. They might even have had a negative effect, by removing the fast ones from the main population (assuming they escaped to the jungle). Most Jamaicans are decended from those slaves who remained slaves, and had enough endurance to survive and reproduce.

    Razib could give a long lesson about the statistics of population sizes and selective pressures…

  7. #7 Spike Gomes
    August 21, 2008

    Here’s a hint to bring some data rigor to the conversation. Look at the recorded death rates of slaves on sugar plantations during the peak period of the Triangle Trade.

    It wasn’t so much active selection. If you didn’t drop dead from overwork, injury, malnutrition and illness after a few years, you lived to pass on your genes. Genes perhaps more apt to physical fitness in such a grueling environment. Not a very happy explanation, really.

  8. #8 SimonG
    August 21, 2008

    So, do Britons have the cycling gene?

    It seem far more likely to me that the Jamaicans have a half decent coaching setup – maybe a couple of exceptional coaches. And as with the British cycling team the success of one person encourages their team-mates.

  9. #9 razib
    August 21, 2008

    So, do Britons have the cycling gene?

    this is a fair enough point, but cycling and swimming have strong exogenous constraints. you need to be able to afford swimming facilities or bicycles.

    Here’s a hint to bring some data rigor to the conversation. Look at the recorded death rates of slaves on sugar plantations during the peak period of the Triangle Trade.

    yep, you have to look at the selection coefficients. i’m willing to bet that most black jamaicans are descended from very few generations of slaves because the mortality rate in the carribean was so high. in contrast, the american slave population produced a surplus in some areas so that importation became less necessary.

    p.s. things can be both genetic and cultural. e.g., if a population has a body morphology where the legs are short and torso long (climate adaptation?), like many indigenous peoples of the new world, prolly won’t produce the best runners (because these differences matter a lot on the extreme margins). but jamaicans might also shift toward a culture where they have comparative advantages to start out with, resulting in a multiplier effect.

  10. #10 JuliaL
    August 21, 2008

    Our local yearly big race is always won by somebody from a group that comes for the occasion from Kenya, and it’s usually by a substantial margin. In fact, the only question most people ask at the end of the race is who came in second.

  11. #11 dearieme
    August 21, 2008

    Britons do well at cycling because of our climate. We are always cycling into the wind.

  12. #12 Lee
    August 21, 2008

    Jamaica is 30 years into a sports program focussed on sprinting. Running is a national sport- while the country is small, an overwhelmingly large percentage of children on the island will be evaluated for running potential. They then feed into a network of coaches who are as good as anyone the planet.

    http://www.wiretapmag.org/arts/43650/

    “How does a poor Caribbean country of less than 3 million people produce such athletic riches? Improved coaching and a new system to develop raw talent at home have combined with a tradition of seeing sprinting as an inexpensive ticket out of poverty, observers say. “Where we are today is [like] a flower,” says Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica’s University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities helped shape some of Jamaica’s finest runners, including Mr. Powell and Bolt. “You’d have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today.”

    And plant they did.

    A little more than 30 years ago, former world-record sprinter Dennis Johnson decided to take what he’d learned at San Jose State University in the 1960s and set up a competitive, US-style college athletic program here in his home country. The goal: produce world-class athletes, especially track stars.”

  13. #13 Matt Penfold
    August 21, 2008

    It seem far more likely to me that the Jamaicans have a half decent coaching setup – maybe a couple of exceptional coaches. And as with the British cycling team the success of one person encourages their team-mates.

    They do have an excellent coaching set-up, and not by chance. The Jamaican sports authorities have spent money to ensure there is such a set-up. They also have excellent backup for the coaches, such as medical staff, physios, physiologists etc.

    The British cycling team have enjoyed similar support.

  14. #14 jim
    August 21, 2008

    I assume nobody is seriously suggesting that Jamaica’s success could be replicated in a non-West African descent country. You could take the world’s best trainers and coaches and have them spend 30 years and billions of dollars in El Salvador or Nepal or Scotland … and you won’t replicate Jamaica’s success unless a bunch of West African descended people move there.

    Jamaica focused on sprinting because they, wisely, focused on where they had natural advantages.

    The genetic advantage, the sporting culture, the proximity to US collegiate training .. these all are important. But the genetic advantage is primary. Denying this seems like willful ignorance.

  15. #15 Peni K Samsuria
    August 21, 2008

    I have also thought about why the Jamaican are good as a sprinter. And also has a high prevalence in diabetes mellitus. In younger age, in prediabetes (metabolic syndrome) with insulin resistence, the insulin are high and they have high mesomorphy somatotype. The uncoupling protein (UCP) 3 are upregulated in the muscle. At the age of 40′s UCP3 are downregulated and UCP2 in the mesenterial fat are upregulated. At 50′s UCP2 are downregulated and they become overt Diabetes.

  16. #16 Karl
    August 21, 2008

    If I may, I want to go slightly offtrack – but related. I have been looking for a place to ask this similar question.
    This is a more extreme example of the same phenomenon.
    Why were the first seven finishers in the men’s 10K from three contiguous countries in East Africa: 3 from Ethiopia, 3 from Kenya, and 1 from Eritrea (I think that that’s the combination). Again, as in the situation you started with, is it genetics, or environment, or culture?

  17. #17 keil
    August 21, 2008

    Damn, my ancestral selection coefficients were for famine resistance. I’m very efficient, which is useless today. I need to exercise one hour every day of my life to stay fit, while others need practically nothing. And I eat very little. Maybe I also will have a long lifespan, but old age years and lifestyle is useless to someone of my personality.

  18. #18 Tony Jeremiah
    August 21, 2008

    There’s an economics professor who has been predicting Olympic medal standings for countries for sometime with a fairly high degree of accuracy. His predictions are based on:’GDP per capita, total population, political structure (democratic, authoritarian, military or communist), climate (the number of frost days) and home-nation bias’. Looking at the model’s predictions in comparison with the current medal standings it’s interesting to note that Jamaica is not even listed among the medal counts of the 20 or so countries listed, for which the lowest total medal count is 5.

    It’s interesting to note that Jamaica’s medal count stands at 9, all from track and field. China’s medal count stands at 83, with 2 from track and field. Their highest medal count comes from artistic gymnastics (14).

    To entertain the possibility of a genetic influence (and to rule out the socioeconomic factors implied by the model above), it would be important to see how many athletes China entered into track and field relative to Jamaica. In a nation of 1.3 billion people (relative to Jamaica’s 3 million), probabilistically, there should be an athlete of an Usain Bolt quality. But identifying such an athlete depends on whether China actually focuses much emphasis on track.

    If China focused all of its effort on identifying top sprinters (with a population of 1.3 billion; the way that Jamaica does according to one commenter), and still cannot find a track athlete of an Usain Bolt stature, then we are likely dealing with a genetic phenomenon.

  19. #19 Matt Penfold
    August 21, 2008

    I assume nobody is seriously suggesting that Jamaica’s success could be replicated in a non-West African descent country. You could take the world’s best trainers and coaches and have them spend 30 years and billions of dollars in El Salvador or Nepal or Scotland … and you won’t replicate Jamaica’s success unless a bunch of West African descended people move there.

    Scotland does have a significant number of inhabitants of West African (via the Caribbean normally) descent. As does much of the rest of the UK. The UK has enjoyed success in sprinting in the past, with Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and others. Of course one does not have to go back that far to come across Alan Wells, a Scot, and who took gold in the Olympic 100m and silver in the 200m. He is as white as they come.

    And China has not concentrated on finding sprinters. There is a lot of competition in the sprints, from all over the world. Instead they have targeted those events where the competition is not as fierce.

    The UK has done the same. Rowing, sailing and cycling were targeted as being sports where there was not as much competition and where the UK has had success in the past and so has something on which to build.

  20. #20 genesgalore
    August 21, 2008

    it’s pretty simple. nothing runs like an african… i want those ligaments.

  21. #21 Ruchira
    August 22, 2008

    How come no one here has heard about the yams?

  22. #22 bobyu
    August 22, 2008

    These new Jamaican superstar athletes are all young and the subjects of an experimental dieting regimen since childhood. It has something to do with changes over the long term to the mitochondrial genome, and the effects are similar to what were earlier expected to result from growth hormone doping – except that there are no testing methods that would either disclose the presence of any such changes in the genome, nor are there any rules against such long term use of selected nutrients. The coaches are quite good as well. But c’mon, natural genetic predisposition that similar populations don’t equal? That’s just silly.

  23. #23 David B
    August 22, 2008

    I’m sure that Bolt is a natural phenomenon, but I’ve seen a few hints in the press that the sudden improvement in the Jamaican team’s performance in the last few years has been ‘assisted’. It’s a bit like FloJo and her dodgy relatives: nothing was ever proved (against FloJo herself) but when a superbly fit female drops dead at an early age you have to wonder…

  24. #24 David B
    August 22, 2008

    …BTW, Alan Wells, mentioned above, got gold in the Moscow Olympics which the US boycotted, so the competition was much weaker than usual. And even in the British press there was some curiosity about how Wells had managed to transform his physique and his running times so dramatically in a few years.

  25. #25 Reality Bites
    August 22, 2008

    bobyu said < >

    I could buy that diet might influence things, slightly. Your statement about similar populations not equaling is absurd. The Americans win all the time in a plethora of events. What creates their advantage? Great genes that have been crossed almost perfectly in a given individual from his parents, then hard training. You act like all of these caribbean/american spots necessarily have the same content of fit individuals. That’s precisely what we are not arguing.

  26. #26 bobyu
    August 22, 2008

    Reality:
    These caribbean/american spots don’t necessarily all have the same content of fit individuals, but it’s the per capita content in Jamaica that seems seriously out of whack, and that makes your genetic explanation untenable.
    The Americans, of course, win for a combination of reasons that include resources, training, a plethora of venues, tradition, and of course a diet regimen of their own.

  27. #27 I Really Do Want to Know
    August 22, 2008

    “End of story. It’s so frickin’ obvious but people don’t want to state the very truth for fear of other conclusions, *which may or may not be true*.” [emphasis mine]

    Every time I visit ScienceBlogs (or Genome Technology Online, for that matter), I brace myself for the insistence that shoddy science journalists keep arguing that “race doesn’t matter” under the pressure of evil PC politics. Only an ignorant, apologist advocate of PC, after all, keeps spouting the (medically irresponsible!) line that “race doesn’t matter”. Anyone with a science education and a backbone will admit that, like it or not, it does. Thus saith many of the commentators, and many in a state of high dudgeon.

    Most of the time, I shield myself from what intuitively feels like a whole world of ugly just beyond the veil by telling myself two things as I read: 1) “Race”, like “culture”, is not an analytical unit (e.g., “helium”), so how do I know how any given commentator has defined it? and 2) I will never become a geneticist if I allow myself to get scared, hurt, or offended. The world is what it is and I’ve got to work with it as I find it.

    Today, however, I’ve reached my limit. I read Reality Bites’s comment and lost my ability to suppress myself. I put these questions to you all:

    So– are black people biologically “inferior”? I really want to know. Is there some grim genetic truth out there that I just haven’t faced up to yet? Are “we” only good for athletic endeavors? Are we genetically stupid? Am I more likely to fail as a geneticist because I hail from a lineage that “tends not to” showcase intellectual prowess? Should I give up?

    If I’m told I’m bright, is that more likely to be apologist PC than “truth”? Or is that just my Korean half coming out? How should I think of other aspects of my phenotype– my skinniness, my swiftness while running, my poor dancing skills, my relative struggle with math?

    Biologically speaking, did my Asian mother make a deleterious choice of mate when she married my black father? Do the white males who pursue me (or my sister) betray preferences that will most likely harm the fitness of their offspring, while the ones who take every opportunity to sarcastically blog about “blaming the ‘white man’” really know what’s what?

    Yeah, I know, I didn’t write these questions neutrally, nor did I divest them of unwarranted assumptions, as I should have. This is a touchy subject for me. But I still really want to know whether or not I’m biologically inferior– especially intellectually. I’d still appreciate any thoughtful responses any of you grad students or professionals in molecular biology care to give.

    (And I didn’t use HTML tags because, while I know *how* to use HTML tags, I have not yet learned *which* tags will give me the effects I want here. Biological intellectual inferiority here, too?)

  28. #28 razib
    August 22, 2008

    these comments are just getting too retarded. comments closed.

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