The use of genetic data— DNA information that can tell a person about natural abilities to which they may be genetically predisposed— has been developing at breakneck speed over the last decade, with many fields benefiting. Now, with Karate Combat, this data is getting a unique and comprehensive application within a sports league.
It took a match-up between a new martial arts league and a leading genetics company to build the first league-wide database of athletes’ genetic traits. Orig3n and Karate Combat have partnered to make the most of the opportunity.
From metabolism to muscle strength, it all starts with DNA.
What does the data reveal? Among other things, it can tell if a fighter may be ruled by mood swings, can break down fats quickly, should consider avoiding caffeine, may have good oxygen capacity, is predisposed to recovering quickly from injuries, may be more likely to tolerate pain, and even if they might need more vitamin C. The genetic results are broken down into several categories: Behavior, Exercise Recovery, Feelings, Food Breakdown, Food Sensitivity, Hunger & Weight, Joint Health, Metabolism, Movement, Muscle Strength, Power Performance, Tolerance and Vitamins.
The results are invaluable to trainers, who can make the most of areas the fighter might be gifted in— like muscle force, encoded by the gene ACTN3— and find ways to modify training accordingly. ACTN3 is one of the most widely documented fitness genes, and encodes for the protein alpha actinin-3. This protein may impact the ability of skeletal muscles to produce force at high velocity, which is obviously important in karate. Athletes and their trainers can also adapt training in areas where a fighter might not naturally shine, using results from genes like COMT which regulates reactions to pain and stress.
Some results seem amusing at first: FTO is the gene for “Feeling Full”, which helps people regulate their diet and reactions to hunger cues. SLC2A2 is known as “Sweet Tooth,” which can show if people are more genetically predisposed to crave sugary foods. Having genetically based information about these factors enables fighters and trainers to avoid trouble with diet and performance.
Data in action
A real-life case study: At Karate Combat: Olympus, in Athens, Greece, French fighter Davy Dona attempted an ashi barai kick against Jerome Brown in the main card fight and shattered his own shin bone. Dona was rushed to the hospital and the fight went to Brown on a TKO. Dona made a quick recovery, but when he and his trainers and Kovacs looked back at Orig3n’s report on him, they found that a gene related to a predisposition for bone strength, SOST, was listed as “adapt.” Clues like that can help a fighter and trainer choose appropriate— and safe— strikes to focus on.
“I’ve walked the fighters and trainers through Orig3n’s results,” said Karate Combat Head of Karate, Adam S. Kovacs. “They’re astounded to receive this kind of detailed information and you can see their minds go into overdrive right away, working out ways to maximize the gifted attributes and adapt for the others.”
DNA data offers something for everyone
This data is not just helpful to fighters and their trainers. Fans can also study these factors, such as variants in the IL-6 gene, which can show if their favorite fighter has a good chance of recovering from a grueling round in the Pit. Or by looking at things like variants in the eNOS gene, showing whether power or endurance may carry a fighter through.
On karate.com, each fighter’s DNA profile is laid out for the public to see. The results for each gene studied range from Gifted to Normal to Adapt (Adapt meaning the fighter may need to adapt to improve an area in which they have more modest capabilities). Clicking on each trait on karate.com translates a scientific explanation into plain English, and clicking in the results column spells out the benefit or deficit associated with each item. In many “adapt” cases, the results give specific advice on how to try to make up for what could be a weakness.
Even better, fans using the Heads-Up Display while watching fights at karate.com or on the Karate Combat app can access Orig3n’s DNA data on each fighter in real time, alongside live updates on stats like strike speed and heart rate.
Privacy and costs: barriers to progress
Why hasn’t this been done before? In part, it took a new company like Karate Combat, which embraces technology and new ways of looking at sport, to break through. The martial art also lends itself to using the genetic information because it’s a sport that relies on so much more than brute force. Fighters seek to fine-tune every aspect of the mind and body, taking every nuance into consideration.
Karateka also may be an especially altruistic group among athletes when it comes to sharing their private genetic data. Perhaps they understand that just as the birth of this new league is advancing the status of their sport globally, sharing DNA data can help other martial artists—both professionals and the tens of millions who practice in dojos everywhere— improve their performance. In fact, even non-martial artists can learn from watching Karate Combat fights and looking at the Orig3n data with their daily lives in mind.
Nevertheless, privacy remains one of two main concerns in DNA testing in sports. The second concern is high costs. Orig3n solves both of these problems in a simple way: the company owns its own labs. Many big name biotech companies that offer DNA tests outsource the actual testing at great expense. That alone complicates the “chain of ownership” of the data, but to make matters worse, those third-party lab costs are offset by selling customers’ data to third party companies. Orig3n, on the other hand, never sells data to third parties.
The advantage of owning its own labs also extends the reach and creativity of what the Orig3n can do. They nimbly respond to client needs and are able to be flexible in crafting specific tests for different partners. For instance, the company has developed a test for fans of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, with an emphasis on attributes ranging from muscle performance to activity-specific characteristics such as altitude tolerance and sensitivity to cold.
In the future, Karate Combat fans who are also karateka themselves may be able to take tests to see which of their favorite fighters they most resemble genetically, allowing them to identify even more deeply with their heroes.
Knowledge is power
Is there any downside to having this information? Some might worry that knowing they have certain genetic traits could cause people to either limit themselves or be overconfident. Orig3n execs are careful about this concern.
“We always emphasize that genetic results are predispositions, but receiving your genetic information makes you more informed about yourself and has a measurable effect on how your body changes based on this information.” said Robin Smith, CEO of Orig3n. “Recent studies have shown that DNA information can have a physiological impact on your body just from the knowledge alone. Furthermore, our bodies are likely the only part of our lives where we don’t have a user guide or manual. We are at the very beginning of this exciting science and informing a person about hidden traits, predispositions, strengths and weaknesses is never a bad thing.”
Clearly, when it comes to Karate Combat, knowledge is power.