Man, science is so cool. Stuff like this is why I’m a geneticist. The FOXP2 gene is considered the “language gene” in humans. People who have nonfunctional versions of the gene have a hard time controlling the fine movements in the face needed for forming words, and their areas of the brain associated with language are less active. FOXP2 is found throughout the animal kingdom and is associated with vocalization and song learning. It is also highly conserved – except in humans. While mice and chimpanzees have the same version of the gene, humans have two non synonymous mutations – that is, two different amino acids.
So what did these scientists do? They stuck the human version of FOXP2 into mice to see what would happen. No, the mice didn’t start talking like Mickey, but they showed changes in brain structure that is associated with human speech and had different ultrasonic vocalizations. Unfortunately we’re not fluent in Mouseish, so we don’t know if these mouse pups are suddenly speaking at a Shakespearean level, but it’s still pretty neat.
This is especially exciting because we kept coming back to this topic in my Eukaryotic genetics class. Our professor was telling us the above information about FOXP2. “What if you put a human FOXP2 in a chimpanzee?” a student asked. “I wonder what would happen.” Half of the class’s eyes twinkled with mad scientist glee (the half that will be researchers, not med students I assume). Our professor sort of laughed nervously. “I don’t know, have fun getting an ethics committee to accept that.” I turned to one of my friends and mouthed, presumably with an evil grin, “I’m gonna do it!!” and it turned into a running joke for the class. She’s the one who sent me the article. We haven’t been scooped quite yet, but almost!! I better get crackin’ on my talking chimp.