At Euan Ashley’s lab in Palo Alto, the director of Stanford’s Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease has gathered DNA from 200 world-class runners, skiers and other athletes after hooking them up to a brutal exercise test to separate the best. He plans to eventually sequence DNA from more than a thousand of the world’s fittest people.
Daniel Hansson and Kristin Larsson, a fit, blond Swedish couple, arrived at Stanford’s medical center ready for a workout. They were hooked up to a mask and a treadmill that forced them to run harder and harder while tracking oxygen consumption. The couple competes in adventure and endurance races that can last as long as 7 days with little rest. In 2012, they were the top international competitors in a 40-mile race on the lower slopes of Mount Everest.
Top athletes may have genes that help their hearts pump stronger, their lungs take in more oxygen, or that give them stronger muscles or blood that’s more efficient at transferring oxygen, Ashley said. On the opposite spectrum are people whose hearts are failing, or whose ability to transport oxygen in the blood has weakened by disease. Studying the elite may reveal a pathway for future treatments.