The Next Revolution of Sports Cheating: Rewriting Athletes’ Genetic Codes

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Think cheaters never prosper? Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times. Manny Ramirez won two World Series championships. Ben Johnson won an Olympic gold medal.

That’s a whole lot of prosperity.

Sure, officials eventually figured out that Armstrong, Ramirez, and Johnson used prohibited performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and penalized them accordingly. However, countless others get away with it. And in the not-so-distant future, athletes could cheat in a way that’s even harder, if not impossible, to detect.

It’s called gene doping. Scientists are figuring out how to literally rewrite our genetic code through genetic modification and gene editing. That means tomorrow’s athletes could take the field with genes purposely, synthetically altered.

How would that work? you may wonder. Think for a moment about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You’ve probably come across them at the supermarket, maybe read a bit about them online. To modify the plants’ genes, scientists usually use a virus to introduce a useful gene. In theory, scientists could apply the same process to create a better athlete.

For example, a scientist could use instruct a virus to insert a gene that encourages the body to produce the protein erythropoietin (EPO). EPO helps deliver oxygen to tissue, which is why athletes have injected it for years to improve their performance.

Detecting injected EPO is simple, which is why athletes subjected to doping tests may avoid it. But detecting excess EPO the body produced on its own? Much harder to do. Though it’s possible.