Scientists at the Max Plank institute in Germany recently announced that they had successfully knocked the human variant of the FOXP2 “language” gene into mice.
The FOXP2 gene, discovered in 2001, is the most famous gene known to be associated with human language. There has been some debate about what exactly it does, but a point mutation in the gene is known to cause speech and language disorders.
Part of the interest in FOXP2 stems from the fact that it is found in a wide range of species, including songbirds, fish and reptiles with only slight variations. Also, FOXP2 is expressed in many parts of the body, not just the brain. Previous research had found that removing the gene from mice decreased their vocalizations…and ultimately killed the mice.
In the new study, scientists created a new mouse “chimera” with the human variant of the FOXP2 gene. This time, the only differences they could find between the transgenic mice and typical mice was in their vocalizations.
(Disclosure: This research does not appear to have been published yet. I heard about it from Marc Hauser of Harvard University, who heard about it this summer from a conference talk by Svante Paabo of Max Plank, one of the researchers involved in the project.)