Friday, May 29, 2009

Talking About Mice

Why can humans speak when other primates can’t? Well, anyone who lived through the Bush administration can tell you not every human is capable of complex speech. But those of us who are have our genes to thank. Compared to other animals, humans have two amino acid substitutions on our FOXP2 genes. It’s thought that these substitutions account for some of our ability to vocally communicate. People born without functioning FOXP2 genes can’t match facial expressions to the words they say, so the amino acid substitutions probably govern our ability to finely control muscles for speech. It turns out mice also have the FOXP2 gene, so scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology decided to try making human-like substitutions on the FOXP2 genes of mice just to see what the fuck would happen. Science! Turns out, stuff happened. Specifically, the new genes caused an increase in activity in the part of a mouse brain that corresponds to human brain circuits that govern speech. Also, the ultrasonic vocalizations of altered baby mice seem to be different, though researchers aren’t sure what this means, if anything at all. In other words, we’ve now confirmed what we already thought about those amino acid substitutions. Also, we may have made a huge step forward in achieving the long-held human dream of owning talking mice. This is great for scientific research, as talking mice will conveniently be able to tell scientists which of their organs have been shut down by experimental drugs. More details here.

Blog Archive