Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Emily Singer

A View from Emily Singer

Mice with a Human-Language Gene

They can’t talk, but they squeak differently.

  • May 29, 2009

Researchers have genetically engineered a strain of mice to carry the human version of a gene called FOXP2, which has previously been linked to speech. While other animals possess the gene, the human version varies slightly from those of both mice and chimpanzees. (Neanderthals appear to have the same version as modern humans.)

According to the New York Times, “the human version of FOXP2 seemed to substitute perfectly for the mouse version in all the mouse’s tissues except for the brain.”

In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure. Baby mice utter ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. The humanized baby mice, when isolated, made whistles that had a slightly lower pitch, among other differences, says [Wolfgang Enard, a scientist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, who led the work].

For more on the FOXP2 gene and the hunt for the genetics of language, check out this Technology Review feature by Jon Cohen, “The Genetics of Language.”

When Monaco, Fisher, Hurst, and coworkers reported the FOXP2 findings in the October 4, 2001, issue of Nature, it made international headlines–and, more important, announced the start of a new era in speech and language research.

Even then, the scientists knew that FOXP2 does not single-handedl­y wire the brain for language. In the grand theater of the genome, it is cast as a transcription factor, turning other genes on or off by telling them whether to transcribe their DNA into messenger RNA, which leads to the production of proteins. And FOXP2 has a broad repertoire in embryonic development, playing critical roles in the formation of the lungs, heart, and intestines.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.