The Human Language Gene

This web page was produced as an assignment for an undergraduate course at Davidson College.


An expanding branch of research seeks to understand the genetic basis of human communication and the origin of language. The “language gene” FOXP2 encodes a transcription factor that was first implicated in 1998 by investigating a large British family with a multigenerational pedigree of apparently inherited speech defects. Around half of the members of the KE family inherited a dominant FOXP2 mutation that causes a monogenic speech and language disorder, classified as a severe form of Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Affected members have difficulties mastering complex sentences and subtle vocal movements, as well as difficulties with dyslexia, poor grammar and sentence processing.  A 2001 article featured in National Geographic News reported the case of the KE family and implications into the study of the genetic evolution of humans.

A recent press article featured in The New York Times (May 2009) relays a surprising finding about the role of FOXP2 in brain function. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany substituted the human version of the FOXP2 gene into mice. Their results found that only brain tissue was altered; these humanized mice grew more complex nerve structures. Furthermore, baby mice made whistles at a lower pitch, “among other differences”.

Here, I will compare and contrast the popular and scientific presentation of this discovery about FOXP2. This site encompasses a summary of the original research article - A humanized version of Foxp2 affects cortico-basal ganglia circuits in mice (Enard et al 2009) - detailing the findings, and a comparison of those findings to The New York Times article, "A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks".


Pedigree of the KE Family. I, II, and III represent the generations. From Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6, 131-138 (February 2005).


For more popular articles on the language gene FOXP2, see:
Scientists Unlock Mysteries of Speech (October 2001)
First Language Gene Discovered (August 2002)
Neandertals Had Same “Language Gene” as Modern Humans (October 2007)


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