It is often thought of as one of the things that make humans unique. Now, researchers are uncovering the suite of genes that gave us our gift of the gab.
All of them appear to be controlled by a master-switch gene called Foxp2. When inactive, this gene causes severe speech and language problems in humans. Although other animals have versions of Foxp2, in 2002 a German team identified two small alterations in the protein the human Foxp2 produces that are not carried by our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. This suggested that the human version of Foxp2 may function differently, and be a key element in our unique linguistic abilities.
Earlier this year, Wolfgang Enard's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, spliced this human version of Foxp2 into mice. The mice didn't start speaking, but their sub-sonic vocaliszations changed, as did the shape and activity of neurons in a brain area that goes awry in people with Foxp2-related language disorders.