Hardwired news

We are, as George Steiner used to say, “language animals”. Noam Chomsky argued that we are born with, somehow, a natural capacity for language. Now comes some indications of the genetic mechanisms that could be responsible for our great gift.

The first concrete evidence of a genetic link to the evolution of language in humans was published today in the journal Nature. Researchers led by UCLA neurogeneticist Daniel Geschwind have shown that two small differences between the human and chimpanzee versions of a protein called FOXP2 result in significant differences in the behavior of dozens of genes in human neurons.

FOXP2 is a protein known as a transcription factor; its role is to turn other genes off or on. Geschwind and his collaborators deleted the native gene for FOXP2 from a lab-grown line of human neurons. They then inserted either the gene for human or chimp FOXP2 into the cells and screened the cells to see which genes were being expressed, or actively producing proteins. The researchers identified dozens of genes that were expressed at either higher or lower levels depending on whether the cells were making human or chimp FOXP2. They verified these findings by examining gene expression patterns in post-mortem brain tissue from both chimps and humans who died of natural causes…