Scientists may soon find the secret behind the athletic prowess of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt – the fastest man on Earth, thanks to a new tool that allows them to analyse muscle proteins and observe the molecules at work in unprecedented detail.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany have further developed cryo-electron microscopy, a technique that can be used to explain the cause of muscle diseases and identify features that make the musculature of top athletes so efficient.
A tissue sample from the world record holder Bolt could enable researchers to find why some people can run so much faster than others.
“With cryo-electron microscopy we can observe the natural changes in the interplay of muscle proteins. It would also enable us to discover whether this interplay differs in Usain Bolt’s muscles from that in other people’s muscles,” said Stefan Raunser, from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology.
Special protein constellations could consequently result in the optimal development of muscle strength, which is not
achieved in other sprinters.
“All top athletes probably have genes that enable them to achieve top performances,” said Raunser.
In addition, given that skeletal muscle contains both fast muscle fibres capable of rapid bursts of power and slow
ones that are suitable for enduring activity, Bolt’s musculature may be composed of a particularly effective combination of fibres.
The protagonists of muscle movement are the protein actin, which accounts for 20 per cent of the weight of the
musculature, and the motor protein myosin, which converts chemical energy into actual movement.
“The actin uses myosin molecules like a track. When several million myosin molecules move along this track
simultaneously, the muscle contracts,” said Julian von der Ecken, a doctoral student in Stefan Raunser’s Group.
With genetic muscle diseases, the actin and myosin no longer work adequately together and the musculature is
weakened as a result.
It is not known why the proteins interact less effectively with each other in such cases, as it was not possible for scientists to study the proteins at the necessary level of detail up to now.
Researchers have made an important contribution to improving the understanding of these muscle diseases.
They were able to show, for example, that many genetically induced changes are located in a critical area which plays an essential role in the formation of the interface between the muscle proteins.
Changes in this interface may also make the actin and myosin molecules interact effectively in Bolt and other elite
athletes, and lead to a greater efficiency of the musculature as a result.