Saturday, April 1, 2000

Gene-altering project may help ski numbers

Most of us who depend on the tourist trade and on skier or rider visits know that, for the past ten years, the number of mountain resort's visits during winter has been flat with no foreseeable rebound in sight.

This lackluster trend may soon reverted if Dr. Eugene Ettick, a Swiss professor of genetic engineering succeeds in cloning skiers and snowboarders.

Dr. Ettick's initial survey conducted in 1992 at the University of Geneva has shown that out of 100 people who admit they ski or ride, only eleven percent have the genetic making and behavior that will hook them to the sport. Out of that small percentage, three quarters are male.

The same study also showed that up to ninety-five percent of these same "hard-core" practitioners may continue -- if given the opportunity -- to ski or ride well into their 70's.

A few months later, Dr. Ettick and his team of researchers began to collect DNA from hard-core snow enthusiasts and compared it to a control population.

Initially, this study was both difficult and frustrating as skiers did not cooperate with the research team as they felt that the scope of the study was trivial and even some type of a hoax. Thanks to rather lax privacy laws in Europe, the research team undertook to "get" the material data without really asking. They just took advantage of the late winter season when mostly die-hard skiers can be found on the slopes and when clothing layers get much thinner. Stealing a tiny sample of the subject's fleshy DNA in overcrowded trams, gondolas or jammed ski lines at major alpine resorts then became a lot easier.

A rough estimate of the subject's age and sex was simply assessed by data collectors as they "pricked" the skiers' fleshier body regions.

While this approach sometime occasioned complaints from female customers who reported that "perverts" were harassing them in crowded situations, enough data was collected to paint a representative picture of what avid skiers' DNA looked like.

For instance, the early samples showed that the majority of subjects exhibited over-achieving attitudes, a propensity for independent thinking and greater-than-normal tolerance for risk.

From this information, the Geneva-based group started to "enhance" some of the DNA collected and proceeded to "dial" certain traits up or down, like need for speed or fear factor.

With the invaluable help of one of Dr. Ettick's associates whose spouse is a high ranking physician in a Basel sperm bank owned by Novartis, some modified DNA was introduced into several sets of vials, half of which were inseminated between 1995 and 1997.

While the tracking of babies born as the result of that work proved to be arduous, ninety-five percent of the subjects identified were noticed to have a propensity of sliding before they could even walk. Since that time, half of them had literally coerced their parents to take them skiing, but the most widely observed behavior was the extraordinary toddlers' enthusiasm and skills on playground slides.

Today, not only has the Swiss Ski Federation started to become a significant contributor to Dr. Ettick's research in an effort to enhance its talent pool, but so have its bobsled, luge and skeleton counterparts.

It must be noted however that kids whose genes have been "skierezed" are also showing mischievous behaviors; like laying banana peels on sidewalks, recklessly driving their big wheels into street traffic, jumping off their high-chairs when dinner is not served fast enough, ingesting far too much liquid and generally being loud and obnoxious.

On a more positive note, the same kids began to stay away from TV, Nintendo and other computer games; even Barney's suddenly lost most of its appeal.

Many of them also exhibited above-average skills at playing "connect the dots" on a piece of paper which -- some child psychologists assert -- shows an innate attraction for interconnected mountain resorts!

From a gender standpoint, the "gap" has now disappeared, (a more powerful tool than Title 9!) which has prompted some visionary lift operators to suggest a "dosage" that would create more female skiers than males. This should boost resorts visitations by prompting boys to look for girls on the slopes. The most aggressive expert even suggested that by striking the right "unbalance" between sexes, ski area visitations could see a geometric progression...

Towards the end of the 90's Dr. Ettick extended the same study to a Colorado university that started to gather its data at A-Basin but ended up at nearby Snowbird because its crowded and steamy tram sped up sample collection. A handful of Parkites have reported being "pinched" inside the Snowbird tram on several occasions during May of 1997 and 1998.

Thanks to the sophistication of U.S. genetic research, samples that were processed here in the past months have shown great promises.

Among others, the U.S. research group has determined that certain behaviors such as "rope crossing" could be eradicated from a skier or rider's internal programming, even though the ACLU has strongly objected to that.

In addition, a person biological clock could be slightly altered or even remotely controlled so the urge of sliding could be programmed to kick in November or April when ski resorts are slow.

Real estate developers are also jumping in and have asked the scientists to program impulse buying of condos or timeshares at their resorts.

This promising new technology is not without its danger. Because a Colorado school is behind the program, some fear that there is an obvious temptation to steer the new crop of destination skiers into picking the Centenial state instead of Utah, California or Canada, for example.

At present, Governor Levitt who knows of the situation has vaguely spoken of launching a similar program at the U of U or at Utah Valley Community College. He has also hinted that he might combine the project with Pons and Fleishman's cold fusion work of several years ago to attract venture capital investors.

Until now, and because of so-called ethical concerns attached to gene modifications in general, the study has assumed a very low profile. This may change soon however as a "Save our Canyons" sticker-bearing member claimed he was "stabbed" two years ago in Snowbird and suffered a mild infection in the right buttock.

At press time, this individual is considering bringing legal action against the U.S. research team...