Human Language Gene Changes How Mice Squeak

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mighty mouse

German researchers have installed the human version of the FOXP2 gene into mice and they sound different than normal mice. FOXP2 is required for articulate speech. The version of the FOXP2 gene in chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, differs by just two amino acids from the human version. The mouse version differs by three. Recent research finds that Neanderthals had our version, suggesting that they might also have been language users. As the New York Times reports:

[The] possession of the human version of FOXP2 does in fact change the sounds that mice use to communicate with other mice, as well as other aspects of brain function.

That is the result reported in the current issue of the journal Cell by Wolfgang Enard, also of the Leipzig institute, and a large team of German researchers who studied 300 features of the humanized mice. FOXP2, a gene whose protein product switches on other genes, is important during the embryo's development and plays an active part in constructing many tissues, including the lungs, stomach and brain. The gene is so vital that mice in which both copies of the gene are disrupted die after a few weeks.

Despite the mammalian body's dependence on having its two FOXP2 genes work just right, Dr. Enard's team found that 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, Dr. Enard says. Dr. Enard argues that putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives.

FOXP2 induces significant changes in mammalian brains. Earlier this week, Japanese researchers showed that stable genetic modifications can be introduced into primates.So the question is: what would the effect of installing the human version of the FOXP2 gene into a chimp embryo be? How close to crossing the line between human and animal is ethical? 

In a column back in 2004, while reporting on some earlier FOXP2 research, I mused on the question "What Is Too Human?" and concluded:

As humanity's biotechnological prowess increases, we will confront again and again the question of what, if any, limits should be placed on research that mixes human and animal genes, cells and tissues. The main ethical concern about such research is not the creation of improved and useful animals, but the risk of producing what would be, in effect, diminished human beings.

Creating mice that squeak differently is nowhere close to that ethical line and could shed fascinating light on what makes humans different. 

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  1. Good article, minor spelling error in the title.

  2. This is so cool!

  3. Talking chimps? Think of the comedy possibilities!

  4. Such languarge!

  5. You tell `em, Frankie!

  6. No Rats of NIMH reference? Cmon!

  7. “Creating mice that squeak differently is nowhere close to that ethical line and could shed fascinating light on what makes humans different.”
    That’s (squeak) easy for (squeak) you (squeak) to say…squeak, squeak! Shouldn’t have (squeak) my coffee cup (squeak) next to those mouse (squeak) genes.

  8. One wonders what gene was inserted into Bailey to change the way he spells.

  9. Suckers. Tricked you again!

  10. Reason’s been poking around KurzweilAI.net this morning

  11. The version of the FOXP2 gene in chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, differs by just two amino acids from the human version.

    Do you really mean “amino acids?” Because genes are composed of nucleic acids. Do you mean that this particular gene codes for an enzyme that differs by two amino acids from the human version?

  12. Chimps are much stronger than humans, let’s not make them smart.

  13. I think the Brain from Pinky and the Brian would be a more appropriate cartoon mouse for your graphic. 🙂 Now, to try to take over the world!

  14. Tulpa: It’s not a spelling gene that I’m missing. I apparently suffer from a defective proofreading gene — A defective gene from which some H&R commenters also appear to suffer. 😉

    Or do they suffer from the post-before-spell- checking gene?

  15. The version of the FOXP2 gene in chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, differs by just two amino acids from the human version.

    Do you really mean “amino acids?” Because genes are composed of nucleic acids. Do you mean that this particular gene codes for an enzyme that differs by two amino acids from the human version?

    Triplets of nucleic acids code for individual amino acids, so it could be correct as written…

  16. Another Phil: That’s an excellent point and you’re right. The human variant codes for the production of two different amino acids. Before posting, I checked around and found a couple of molecular biologists were using “amino acids” as a shorthand way of explaining the differences between human and chimp, so I did it too. “Journalist see, journalist do.” Sorry for any confusion.

  17. About those voices coming from the walls…

  18. Great. So we are turning Hitchhiker’s Guide into reality?

  19. the risk of producing what would be, in effect, diminished human beings

    Or rather, enhanced chimps. Start uplifting the suckers already!

    I love me some Escape to Chimp Island.

  20. The Tandu uplifted me, and look how I turned out!

  21. The Tandu uplifted me, and look how I turned out!

    The strongest argument against uplift ever? Not helping the cause much, Epi.

  22. This is soooo friggin’ cool. Thankee, thankee.

  23. Marc: But isn’t Planet of the Apes a cautionary tale?

  24. PLANET OF THE APES IS COMING!
    WATCH OUT FOR THE TALKING DAMN DIRTY APES!!!

  25. I’ll get worried when I read that the human language gene has been inserted into sea otters, especially if their cries are modified into anything resembling “death to the table eaters!”

  26. Creating mice that squeak differently is nowhere close to that ethical line

    Sure, it’s all fun and games till one of them squeakily demands the right to vote.

    Then three years later they outnumber us and we’re all sent off to work in the cheese mines.

  27. Ron,
    “Journalist see, journalist do.” Sorry for any confusion.”

    That is the reason most science reporting sucks (or out right wrong). The rest of the bad reporting comes from trying to “balance” science reporting to appease opposing special interest groups no matter how ridicules the decent.(ID,ant-vaccinations etc…)
    Please in the future do more “due diligence” because not getting you’re facts straight is the most unprofessional of the two (though not by much).

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