Today’s world-class athletes are already genetic oddities, possessing superior native abilities that they hone through training – and in some cases, through illegal drugs. But with genetic engineering, anyone might enhance his or her abilities “100, 200, 500, 1,000 percent,”

Borrowing the fast-twitch muscles of a mouse, for example, could create superfast sprinters. “If you start to think about the extremes in nature, it’s absolutely frightening” to consider what’s possible, he adds.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which determines which substances are banned in international sports competitions, is so concerned that it has already declared gene doping illegal, even though it believes it’s unlikely that anyone is doing it yet. “The time to grab hold of this matter is now,” said Richard Pound, president of WADA, at a meeting of prominent scientists earlier this year. He urged them to devise ways to detect genetic enhancement even as they develop the technique. Medical researchers are excited about the possibilities of genetic therapies to help patients with muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy, and to strengthen the elderly.

Interest in genetic enhancement in the sports world has exploded since publication in March of a study in a scientific journal showing that mice and rats underwent remarkable changes when injected with a gene that promotes growth. H. Lee Sweeney, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, found that these “Schwarzenegger mice” showed up to 50 percent muscle growth. Rats altered in the same way gained 35 percent in strength when the technique was combined with exercise. Since reporting his findings, Dr. Sweeney has been inundated with requests for information from coaches and athletes.

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