Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rethinking FOXP2

Earlier studies have indicated that a gene called FOXP2, possibly involved in brain development, is extremely conserved in vertebrates, except for two notable mutations in humans. This finding suggested that this gene may in some way be involved in the evolution of language, and was thus dubbed by the popular press "the language gene". See, for instance, this and this for some recent research on the geographic variation of this gene (and related genes) and its relation to types of languages humans use (e.g., tonal vs. non-tonal). Furthermore, a mutation in this gene in humans results in inability to form grammatically correct sentences.

This week, a new study shows that this gene is highly diverse in one group of mammals - the bats:

A new study, undertaken by a joint of team of British and Chinese scientists, has found that this gene shows unparalleled variation in echolocating bats. The results, appearing in a study published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE on September 19, report that FOXP2 sequence differences among bat lineages correspond well to contrasting forms of echolocation.

As Anne-Marie notes, this puts a monkey-wrench in the idea that FOXP2 is exclusively involved in language, but may be involved in vocalizations in general:

Said gene might have a new function (sensorimotor) besides the one originally attributed to it (verbal language).

Jonah Lehrer notes that the same mutation that in humans eliminates ability to use or comprehend correct grammar is also found in songbirds and the gene is expressed at high levels during the periods of intense song-learning. The story is obviously getting very interesting - does this gene have something to do with vocalizations? Or with communication? Or something totally third?

Looking forward to further responses by other blogs, hopefully Afarensis, John Hawks and Language Log?

The article on FOXP2 in bats was published yesterday on PLoS ONE so you can access it for free, read, download, use, reuse, rate, annotate and comment on.

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