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Chatty finches

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Mutations in the so-called FOXP2 gene are associated with a specific speech deficit, affecting articulation and comprehension of language. Apparently FOXP2 plays a central role in the development of speech. Neurobiologists now report that FOXP2 could also play a key role for the ability of birds to learn song. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin and from Duke University, USA, discovered an almost identical version of FoxP2 in songbirds and could then show that the corresponding protein was expressed in brain regions critical for song learning. These results were reported in the March 31st issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

In 2002 Svante Paboo's group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig compared the DNA sequence of the intact FOPX2 gene in humans and chimpanzees. They found that the human gene carried a unique sequence variation that was estimated to have evolved roughly at the same time as language is thought to have emerged in the hominid lineage. Because FOXP2 is a transcription factor, i.e. a protein that regulates the activity of many other genes, the sequence changes of FOXP2 in the hominid lineage could, in the course of evolution, have triggered a chain of events. The Leipzig team found evidence that indicate that the human version of FOXP2 was advantageous for the individuals that carried it and suspect that it could have been pivotal for the origin of human language.

Young birds of many species need to learn the sounds they communicate with in a manner akin to the way infants learn to speak, which is in contrast to mice and non-human primates who don't learn their vocalizations. Constance Scharff, head of the Neurobiology group at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, therefore asked whether the songbird FoxP2 carri
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Contact: Dr. Constance Scharff
scharff@molgen.mpg.de
49-308-413-1214
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
31-Mar-2004


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