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Periodic Graphics: The Russian doping scandal

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning untangles the complicated web of sports doping intrigue leading up to the Rio Olympics

by Andy Brunning
August 2, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 32

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To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit

This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.



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david (August 3, 2016 5:19 PM)
They should check for DNA in urine. If it is not the athlete's DNA or is a mixture, then switching is possible. A mixture can occur by substituting saliva from the athlete + another's urine. However, looking at the types of cells helps uncover this cheating as well. This is an easy and cheap test as the laboratory already has the blood so has the DNA for RFLP testing (or DQ-alpha).
Bob (August 3, 2016 5:40 PM)
You're a little behind the times. Forensic labs haven't used RFLP since the 1990s, and DQ-alpha went the way of the dinosaurs in the 2000s. Modern DNA labs use the PCR replication technique and STRs for DNA profiling.
David (August 4, 2016 8:30 AM)
Thanks for the update. I was just commenting that one could have applied these techniques to urine to identify the individual providing the sample even in the early 1990s. One need not have specific identification only that the sample under question was not consistent with individual A. We did use DQ-alpha at the time and if I remember correctly it is about 93% discriminatory (i.e about 1 in 20 random individuals have the same phenotype). We were one of the first to DNA type urine (frozen, old samples) but did not implement it because one can cheat the test. Therefore, I lost interest. Are the cheating techniques known or were they known a decade ago and thus could they been applied to these historic samples to beat the urine test? Although I alluded to it, should these cheating techniques be discussed on this forum?
Mike Lewellyn (August 4, 2016 4:47 PM)
The Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association has suggested that there exists a high through-put testing regimen that basically looks at the make up of blood or urine and flags anything that is NOT blood or urine and that method will allow the testing of all athletes and then only the flagged samples will need in depth testing. The problem always seems to be that the research into creating these substances for legitimate purposes always outstrips the development of the testing processes.

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