Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Planet Earth

#81: Inserting Human Gene Into Mouse Brains Gives Them Lower Voices

Researchers don't know exactly what FOXP2 does in humans, but it's the gene most directly linked to speech that we know of.

By Allison BondDecember 21, 2009 6:00 AM
mousekey.jpg
iStockphoto | NULL

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

How important was a single gene in the evolution of human language? Scientists have been asking that question since linking a mutation in a gene called FOXP2 with a rare hereditary speech disorder seen in a British family. Other animals possess their own versions of FOXP2, suggesting that it might be possible to determine which evolutionary changes to the gene’s DNA sequence are most closely related to our ability to talk. This year molecular biologist Wolfgang Enard of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, explored that possibility with an extraordinary experiment: He inserted the human version of FOXP2 into mice and studied the effects on the creatures’ brains and vocalizations.

Enard and his collaborators found that neurons in the brains of mice with human FOXP2 showed greater plasticity, the ability to change the strength of their connections with one another. Such plasticity might be involved in vocal learning, he suspects. Mice endowed with the human gene also expressed themselves with lower-pitched sounds. Those deeper squeaks provide additional evidence of FOXP2’s central role in spoken language. “We have no clue which mechanisms could cause such a change,” Enard says, “but we don’t know of any other gene so directly linked to speech.”

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In