Tiny Evolutionary Mutation Led to 'Language Gene'

Manila Bulletin, November 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Tiny Evolutionary Mutation Led to 'Language Gene'


PARIS, November 11, 2009 (AFP) - Two minute changes in a gene that is otherwise identical in humans and chimps could explain why we have full-fledged power of speech while other primates can only grunt or screech, scientists said on Wednesday.The findings may also point to new drug targets for hard-to-treat diseases that disrupt speech, such as schizophrenia and autism, they said.A decade ago, researchers discovered that members of an extended family beset with a rare inherited speech disorder all shared the same defect in a gene called FOXP2.Investigators then found that a small number of patients with another speech-related disease, developmental dysphasia, also had mutations in the gene.Separately, biologists studying FOXP2 in our closest evolutionary cousin, the chimpanzee, noticed that only two among the hundreds of amino acids in the protein coded by the gene differed across the two species.The question emerged: Could this minor genetic variation be the key that enables human speech? Some experts suggested the telltale pair of amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- were evidence of a "fast track" evolution toward language.Others, though, argued that the molecules played no part in our ability to yammer and yak.To find out who might be right, Daniel Geshwind, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, designed the first-ever experiments comparing the "ancestral" FOXP2 in chimps with the evolved variant in humans."We thought this would be a direct way to test the relevance of these two amino acids in the protein's function," Geschwind told AFP by phone. …

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