Let your cells talk - The potential of genomics in sports analytics: the Orreco perspective ‘Let your cells talk’ – The potential of genomics in sports analytics: the Orreco perspective

By Professor Cathal Seoighe

What can the genome of an elite athlete tell you about the source of their success? If all you have to go on is a genome, to be frank, you won’t learn much.
In this blog, we explore why this is so, but first, let’s revise some science.

Your body is made up of cells, ten trillion or so of them (about a thousand for every man, woman and child on the planet if your cells were to be divided out equally). Inside each cell is a copy of your genome – the DNA sequence that spells out your genes and provides the blueprint that makes you physically who you are.

A genome contains a lot of information, but it cannot tell us what makes an elite athlete different from the rest of us.

Why is this so? Well, for starters, the genome is big, while elite athletes are a small group, far too small to allow us to distinguish the parts of the genome they share because they are elite athletes from the parts they share just by chance. In any case, they are more likely to have unique characteristics rather than some shared set of ‘super genes’ and searching for genes that explain unique, often difficult to define, characteristics is hard.

Genomics is about more than just your genome.

Genomes are big but they are also static. Every cell in your body has the same genome and it’s pretty much unchanging. However, the cells themselves are very different and cell states, like sports performance, are very dynamic. The explanation for how an unchanging genome can specify so many different cells and cell states is contained in the fact that at any given time, only a part of the genome is being used. When the cell makes use of a part of the genome (call this a gene), it copies the DNA of the gene into a close relative of DNA called RNA. Unlike the DNA genome, RNA is mobile and highly dynamic, with different cells containing very different RNA profiles. Think of it like your genes in your DNA genome being your unique vocabulary, with the RNA being like the words that are actually being spoken at a given time.

If you want to understand what is going on in your cells, you don’t just want to know what words are in your vocabulary (the genome), you want to hear what’s actually being said on a given day.

Genomics encapsulates this broader goal of, not just reading the genome, but interrogating the RNA that is being expressed. This provides an extremely rich source of data to understand in great detail the state of an individual via the states and proportions of the different types of cells they are composed of.

Analysis of these data is still challenging and we don’t yet know enough to make sense of all of it, but the potential of genomics technologies to capture a high-resolution picture of the state of the individual is striking.

So what about the future potential of genomics and sports analytics?

As an example, consider blood, which consists of several types of cells, most of which are involved in the immune system. Measuring RNA in the blood allows us to work out what is going on within the different kinds of immune cells. The usefulness of this is not limited to providing information about the infections that the individual is fighting off at any given time. The immune system is also a first-line responder to tissue injury and the immune cells circulating in the blood, therefore, carry information about stresses and injuries experienced. It is already possible to find out all of the genes that are being used in the different blood cell types at a point in time, down to the level of individual cells.

As our knowledge improves, the rapidly developing area of genomics will allow us to capture a very high-resolution picture of the dynamics of subtle changes over time in an individual. It will allow our cells to tell us in great detail and in their own RNA words exactly what is happening and likely to happen within the individual.

The challenge is to help interpret these rich and complex data in the context of the multiple streams of information that are collected for elite athletes. This will, in time, enable a better understanding of the performance characteristics of individuals. At Orreco, we are looking forward to helping tell this story rather than just listing the vocabulary.

Cathal Seoighe
Professor of Bioinformatics, School of Mathematics, Statistics and Applied Mathematics, NUI Galway
Orreco Scientific Advisor – Genomics

Check out a selection of Professor Seoighe’s publications here: Orreco.com