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INTERVIEW: How gene mapping helped Mo Salah's Egypt qualify for the World Cup

In this exclusive interview, we speak with former British Olympic sprinter Craig Pickering about how his work with genetic mapping company DNAFit has played a role in helping Mo Salah’s Egypt qualify for their first World Cup in 28 years.

With the FIFA World Cup in Russia now less than a month away, Egypt will be there for the first time since 1990. Whilst Liverpool star Mo Salah is a big reason for their successful qualification, they’ve also had a little help from an unusual source; London-based genetic mapping company DNAFit that offers consumers fitness and diet reports based on their genes.

Craig Pickering, who represented Great Britain at the Beijing 2008 Olympics and is now Head of Sports Science at the company, explained to us that the Egyptian FA first approached DNAFit at the end of 2016, looking to ‘push the team to the next level’. Every player was tested in early 2017 and Pickering travelled to Egypt to meet with the science, medical, and coaching staff to 'explain the results and how they could use it with their players’. Following the teams qualification for Russia, DNAFit are now providing ‘nutrition and strength and conditioning support at their pre-World Cup training camps’.

We asked Pickering about the impact genetics has on professional sportspeople and how gene mapping can help influence training programmes and injury prevention.


How have you seen that genetic makeup can impact individual training and nutrition plans?

CP: ‘Exercise causes stress in our bodies, and this stress activates certain processes that enable us to get fitter, so that the next time we exercise, we undergo slightly less stress. This adaptation is governed by various different genes, and we all have small variations in our genetic code which make us more or less able to adapt to certain types of exercise. For example, a small change in a gene called PPARGC1A, which controls the production of new mitochondria, can make some better able to undergo this process, and as a result they will be fitter.

As an example from nutrition, there is a gene called CYP1A2, which produces an enzyme responsible for around 95% of all caffeine metabolisation in the body. Some people have a version of this gene which enables them to produce more of this enzyme, and, as a result, they metabolise caffeine quicker. This is important when it comes to sport, because caffeine is highly performance enhancing; we use information of this gene to guide the players on how much caffeine to take, and when.’

Have you found any connection between a player’s genes and the likelihood of suffering specific injuries?

CP: ‘There’s a couple of genes that can increase a player’s risk of tendon and ligament injury. If we discover that a player has these risk variants, we try to be as proactive as possible, giving them an injury reduction programme for them to add on to their weight training session, in order to reduce their chances of injury.’

How open have the professional players you’ve worked with been to this approach?

CP: ‘Like anything, there are some people who are more interested in this than others. I tend to find that the higher the level of the player, the more willing they are to try new things, and the more driven they are to take their performance to the next step. The players from Egypt have been great - there has been a huge buy-in, especially in terms of the nutritional advice we give, which obviously makes our job easier.’

DNAFit founder Avi Lasarow revealed that the company has built a rugby genome database of information on professional players. Do you alter your approach with different sports? Are there differences between rugby and football players?

CP: ‘One thing we try to do is work closely with the performance staff of the clubs we work with. These guys know the sport better than we ever will, and they’re the ones working with the players on a daily basis. If we can get them to understand how to use the information we can provide, then the outcomes tend to be much better.

As such, it’s a collaborative process. Before I go and meet with a club, I’ll do plenty of research on their sport, and what their typical training would look like, so that I have a good idea, but then we work closely with the existing coaches to make our advice more applicable to their players. We tend not to see any differences in genes between different sports, but the advice we give would be different, as the training and nutritional requirements vary so much.’

Have you seen any similarities in elite sportspeople’s genes that differ from regular members of the public?

CP: ‘Surprisingly, no! What we’re focused on at DNAFit is giving people advice on training and nutrition, which is obviously different from using genetics for talent identification. As a result, the genes we test for are slightly different. If I get two reports, one from an elite athlete and one from just a normal person, I likely wouldn’t be able to tell who’s who.’

How do you see genetic testing for fitness and nutrition developing in the future, both at an elite level and more generally for the public?

CP: ‘What we do can only improve as we discover more gene variants linked to health and performance, so that in the future we’ll be able to test for more and more genes. We will also start to integrate other technologies into our offerings, such as blood tests and analysis of the microbiome, such that we will have a good idea of where a person is right now, and what changes we need to make in order to get them to where they want to be.’

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