BACKGROUND: FTO gene variants have been associated with obesity phenotypes in sedentary and obese populations, but rarely with skeletal muscle and elite athlete phenotypes.
METHODS: In 1089 participants, comprising 530 elite rugby athletes and 559 non-athletes, DNA was collected and genotyped for the FTO rs9939609 variant using real-time PCR. In a subgroup of non-resistance trained individuals (NT; n = 120), we also assessed structural and functional skeletal muscle phenotypes using dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, ultrasound and isokinetic dynamometry. In a subgroup of rugby athletes (n = 77), we assessed muscle power during a countermovement jump.
RESULTS: In NT, TT genotype and T allele carriers had greater total body (4.8% and 4.1%) and total appendicular lean mass (LM; 3.0% and 2.1%) compared to AA genotype, with greater arm LM (0.8%) in T allele carriers and leg LM (2.1%) for TT, compared to AA genotype. Furthermore, the T allele was more common (94%) in selected elite rugby union athletes (back three and centre players) who are most reliant on LM rather than total body mass for success, compared to other rugby athletes (82%; P = 0.01, OR = 3.34) and controls (84%; P = 0.03, OR = 2.88). Accordingly, these athletes had greater peak power relative to body mass than other rugby athletes (14%; P = 2 x 10(-6)).
CONCLUSION: Collectively, these results suggest that the T allele is associated with increased LM and elite athletic success. This has implications for athletic populations, as well as conditions characterised by low LM such as sarcopenia and cachexia.