A team of German scientists have created a batch of transgenic mice with a human gene for speech. Could they be the prototypes for future hyper-intelligent rodents?
The researchers wanted to shed light on how humans developed our language capabilities, including the intricate thought and muscle coordination which allowed us as a species to develop complex language. One gene responsible for that development is the FOXP2 gene. Its absence leads to speech disorders, and its presence is an important component of human speech. Humans and Neanderthals are known to have a specific variation on the FOXP2 gene, though versions of it appear in other mammals and birds.
To study the gene in action, scientists introduced the human version of it into a group of mice. The results were promising: The speech genes led to increased nerve presence and activity in the language centers of mice's brains. In short, the altered mice had better brains for language.
The results were published in Cell, and the researchers were careful to say that understanding the entire genetic development of language is a ways off. This experiment allowed scientists to take just a peek at how language evolved in humans, and maybe even to nudge a different species down that same evolutionary path.
But mice with increased language abilities don't seem too many ethical steps away from ape lab assistants in Planet of the Apes or dolphin commanders in the Uplift series. Maybe mouse language is just the next step in Frankie and Benjy Mouse's ten-million-year experiment from the Hitchhiker's Guide?
Mouse image from sean dreilinger.