Mouse squeaks may have more in common with human speech than we realised. Tinkering with a gene associated with language in humans has been found to mess up mice’s mating calls.
The gene, called FOXP2, is one of the most-studied genes involved in human brain evolution. It was discovered in the 1990s in a study of a British family that had 16 relatives who had difficulty making certain mouth movements and complex sounds.
The gene turned out to encode a protein that is found in the brain while we develop in the womb, and its shape suggests it works by helping to turn other genes on and off. Other studies have shown that, while FOXP2 has stayed mostly unchanged throughout mammal evolution, there have been two mutations in the gene since we split from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.
It is thought that these mutations enabled us to evolve superior vocal abilities. But the mutation seen in the original family is different, and it is not known how exactly it affects speech. Putting this mutated gene into mice helps us unravel what has gone wrong, and might let us understand other genetic speech disorders, says Simon Fisher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen in The Netherlands.
Read more: New Scientist