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The mice that almost learned to talk

Genetic research about a family of mutes in England, led to the discovery of a gene responsible for the development of the ability to speak in humans. When the gene was engineered into the DNA of mice, they developed different learning and communication abilities than normal mice

For most of us speaking is second nature. We cannot remember a time when we could not open our mouths and communicate with the environment. This is part of our heritage as humans - the richness of the human vocabulary, and our ability to express ourselves. As the famous Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi said, "Language is an accurate reflection of the character and growth of its user". A human being who is unable to communicate with his environment loses his identity and character. Unfortunately for the K family, that's exactly what they lost.

The unique family was discovered in the nineties in London, and has since been used as a pilgrimage center for neuropsychologists and biologists from all fields. Of the thirty members of the family, spanning three whole generations, about half are unable to speak clearly. Upon careful examination of the family, it became clear that at least part of the problem lies in the fact that those semi-mutes have lost the most basic ability necessary for speech - the synchronization between muscles.

The act of speaking is so instinctive for us, that we forget that it involves the movement of dozens of muscles - ribs, throat, palate, tongue and facial area. All of these move in perfect harmony with each other, resulting in us being able to pronounce syllables and words with impeccable accuracy. But in the patients from the K family, the synchronization between the different muscles has been lost, and they are unable to form the complex sounds on which human language is based.

Since these are members of the same family, many researchers believed that a hereditary mutation was involved, and if they insist on a nature, it will be possible to understand the origin of the development of human language. Indeed, in 1998, the mutation that distinguished the sick family members from the healthy ones was revealed - a small and simple mutation in the FOX2P gene, which disrupts its function.

This discovery led to the belief that the FOX2P gene is partially responsible for humans' ability to speak, and spurred many researchers to study the gene and the variety of different forms in which it appears in creatures other than humans. Since the 2s, various derivatives of FOXXNUMXP have been discovered in chimpanzees, mice, songbirds, bats and even in semi-preserved DNA that came from our millions of years old relative - the Neanderthal man.

But what is the role of that garden, without which we lose a large part of our humanity? We still don't know exactly. It seems to be necessary for the normal development of the brain and lungs, but also for maintaining brain functions. When the birds called "Zebra Pink" learn new songs, the FOX2P gene in their brains starts to work and express itself more strongly. It is possible, therefore, that kindergarten helps us learn the principles of language in our youth, until we can speak for ourselves.

The gene itself is nothing more than production instructions for the protein, and it is surprising to see that the FOX2P proteins are very similar in most of the creatures reviewed so far. The human FOX2P protein

It differs from the chimpanzee's protein by only two amino acids (two of the Lego blocks that make up the entire protein). It differs from the protein of mice by three amino acids, and from that of zebra finch birds by only seven amino acids. What do the differences mean? We are not sure of this yet, but at the end of May of this year, an extraordinary study was published, which demonstrated that even the smallest difference of three amino acids, can give the organism distinctly different properties.

Wolfgang Annard, the same researcher who decoded the genetic sequence of the human FOX2P gene and identified the main changes that distinguish it from other animals, decided to do a particularly bold experiment, the results of which he could not predict in advance. He created genetically modified mice, in which the human FOX2P gene was present, instead of the corresponding version of the gene of murine origin. If the human gene does help humans to develop their own language, then we would expect that the upgraded mice would be able to communicate with each other differently, and perhaps even demonstrate a change in brain activity indicating the first buds of the ability to "speak", or improved expression. Surprisingly, that's exactly what Annard found.

When Annard compared the genetically modified mice, which contain the human gene, with their normal mouse friends, he saw that the "improved" mice produced nerve cells capable of learning a sequence of physical actions better, faster and more easily. These neurons are located in the same areas of the brain where the effect of FOX2P is expressed in other species. And when Annard tested mice that carried one defective copy of the gene, he discovered that the ability of the nerve cells in that area to learn was severely impaired. This fact may explain why humans, in whom the FOX2P gene is damaged, have difficulty speaking, and why songbirds suffering from a similar damage fail to imitate the songs of their friends.

The most interesting discovery came from comparing the whimpers and sounds made by the young mice. When mouse pups are removed from their mothers, they whine and scream at high frequencies. Annard's genetically modified mouse pups, when removed from their mothers, also whimpered, but in different patterns and frequencies than the normal mice. As if - and only as if - they learned a new language in which they could express themselves.

What does the experiment mean? Is it possible that Annard's improved mice will be able to speak under the right stimulus? The chances of that are slim, if not zero. Annard himself admits that the sounds the mice make are more similar to a baby's cooing than any other sound. He is convinced that we will never be able to fully reproduce human speech in mice. The different evolution that humans and mice have undergone has resulted in irreconcilable differences in the shape of the lips, tongue, palate, vocal cords and other factors necessary for clear pronunciation of syllables. But behind Annard's uncompromising determination, stand the new mice he created, chirping with voices very different from their usual friends. And maybe, just maybe, they understand a little more than they reveal to the outside.

The article was published on the blog ofRoey Tsezana

12 תגובות

  1. Mr. Shimron,

    First, thanks for the correction. From now on I will use the appropriate Hebrew version.

    I agree with you about the problematic in colloquial language, and therefore I try to be careful about formulations that do not contain a scientific error. In any case, I thank you for your attention and I will try to be more careful in the future.

    With Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,



    my new blog - Another science

  2. When writing about science, colloquial language is extremely problematic, as our understandings are shaped to an enormous extent by the wording. If incorrect wording is repeated often, misinformation is clearly created. The most obvious example, which seems to me to be shared by biologists and those without biological knowledge, is the common saying "the genes do", while anyone who studied biology in high school - should, can, should - know that the genes do not do anything but are information for proteins, which are precisely the "doers". From this misconception was born the popular concept "the selfish garden", which is not false. That's why I think it's appropriate to try to formulate in more precise forms, for the benefit of small redemptions for the world.
    post Scriptum. "My partner" is my wife's daughter, who is my partner - "my partner"
    Happy New Year, Yair

  3. Mr. Shimron,

    First, thanks for the constructive review.

    I must point out that I let my partner read your words about the reproduction genes and she did not understand a single word. Explanations of this type, which seem obvious to us biologists, are far from being such for most people. For this reason, and since the information is not relevant to the purposes of the article, I found it appropriate not to cram into an article of five hundred words barely a concept that most readers would not understand and therefore would complicate the reading unnecessarily.

    Regarding your first claim, it is a wording difference between us, which stems from a difference in writing style and perhaps also in its goals. I try to write popular science articles in colloquial language, as it is more understandable to most people than scientific language. It is true that I could have written "he inserted the human gene into the mouse genome" or, "he created transgenic mice with the human gene." But the result was the use of terms that are not immediately clear - genome, transgenic - and therefore the meaning of the overall sentence was also unclear. Personally, I'd rather most people understand the article than when the few who have studied biology can look at it, nod their heads in disbelief and say to themselves "Indeed, indeed, this is a scholarly article formulated according to the best rules of biological jargon".

    Best regards,



    my new blog - Another science

  4. An interesting article, often poorly worded, and lacking in information. In the fourth paragraph from the end he writes "he created genetically engineered mice, in which the human FOXP2 gene was present" - not true, he engineered the human gene into the mouse genome. Later in the same paragraph, the author writes that the researcher found in these mice the first buds of the ability to speak. Completely far from the truth. According to the article itself, what the researcher found are nerve cells that are able to learn a sequence of physical actions better, and also that the characteristic cry of mouse pups has changed. The last finding does not teach anything about speech, but that if the neural structure changes, so does the activation of the muscles that perform the howl, and therefore the howl changes. Also missing is the very important information that the aforementioned gene is of the type of transcription genes, meaning that its protein product resides in the sites of other genes and its presence or absence results in the activation or non-activation of these genes. Essentially, the proteins produced from the current gene are not directly active in speech.

  5. FOX2P! Cunning, sophisticated and fascinating.
    Now imagine that a talking mouse will also tell you the truth to your face!:) Will the "talker" coming out of his tweet be considered "human" by the scientist's criteria? Ha ha.

  6. As I have already mentioned, what is important for the development of the ability to speak - much more than the issue of producing sounds - is the preparation of the brain that will allow it to represent entities by symbols and to create new entities by linking old ones already represented by symbols.
    Details in the articles "The first word"

  7. Pinky: Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?
    The Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.

  8. "Oh my God"...
    It is amazing just to dare to seriously imagine the possibility of a non-human being speaking a human language.
    It's really interesting how this is expressed in apes...

  9. I would do the same experiment on apes
    and also tries to use model animals such as talking parrots

  10. Reminds me of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
    There mice are very intelligent animals and they do experiments on humans..

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