We then wondered about the role that Piezo1 plays in athletic performance. We were particularly interested in a variant of Piezo1 called E756del, which is found in around a third of people of African descent and thought to play a potential role in how high people can jump.
So we genetically engineered mice to produce an equivalent mouse version of Piezo1 E756del proteins throughout their body and then tested their performance on different physical activities, including long jump and running on a treadmill. Surprisingly, we found that mice with E756del proteins were able to jump about 1.6 times farther without training than mice without the E756del proteins. Mice with Piezo1 in their tendons were also able to run about 1.2 times faster than those without Piezo1.
To identify which body part was producing this jumping ability, we then created mice that produced Piezo1 proteins either in their muscles or their tendons. The results were even more surprising: Mice with Piezo1 in their tendons improved in their jumping ability just as well as mice with Piezo1 throughout their entire body. Mice with Piezo1 only in their muscles, however, did not have any improvement in jumping ability.
We then decided to test the role of Piezo1 in human athletic performance. In collaboration with the Athlome Consortium, an international athletic genomics organization, we compared the prevalence of the gene that codes for E756del in 91 Olympic-level Jamaican sprinters and 108 people in the general population in Jamaica. We found that 54 percent of Jamaican sprinters had an active gene for E756del, compared to just approximately 30 percent of the general population.
Our findings show that changing a single protein, in this case E756del, can play a role in athletic performance. Further research on tendons and other parts of the human motor systems could help improve treatments for musculoskeletal conditions.
Hiroshi Asahara is a professor of molecular medicine at The Scripps Research Institute. He receives funding from National Institute of Health, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development.
Ryo Nakamichi is a postdoctoral researcher in molecular medicine at The Scripps Research Institute.
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