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Wildcat Sun, Nov 15, 2009
'Language gene' effects explored

A gene that has long been implicated in the evolution of speech and language has given up more of its secrets.

A study of the effects of two versions of the FOXP2 gene, one from chimpanzees and one from humans, showed marked differences in their effects.

Human FOXP2 triggered changes in genes known to affect the growth of brain areas related to language and also, more generally, to higher thought.

The findings, published in Nature, could aid diagnosis of mental diseases.
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The exact genetic basis of language is mysterious. But the FOXP2 gene was first implicated as a contributor when, in 1990, a family with an inherited language disorder was found to have a mutation in the gene.

A structurally very similar "version" of the gene is found in a wide number of species of vertebrates.

And ancient DNA, extracted from Neanderthal remains, shows the same version of the gene found in humans.

But the form in chimpanzees is slightly different. It varies by just two amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins that are in turn the building blocks of genes.

"Two doesn't sound like a lot but given how highly conserved the gene is across species and how close we are in evolutionary time to chimps, that was a pretty big change," said Daniel Geschwind of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led this study.