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August 20, 2002

Mutant Gene Linked to Language Development

New findings to be published in the journal Nature show that two critical genetic mutations appeared roughly 200,000 years ago and swept through the human population at around the time they began to dominate the planet. The gene is linked to language and the researchers believe the mutation gave humans greater control over muscles of the mouth and throat, possibly giving them a rich new palette of sounds that became the foundations of language. The research was led by Svante Paabo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The gene, FOXP2, was located in a study of 16 people in the UK, most of whom were members of a large family that suffered from an inherited speech disorder. The exact function of the gene is still unclear but it is present in some form in all mammals and is believed to be involved in fetal brain development. It differs by only two molecules, out of 715, from that of the chimpanzee and by three from that of the mouse. But even such a miniscule variation, when it appeared, gave humans such an evolutionary edge that it spread to the whole race within 500 to 1,000 generations, or 10,000 to 20,000 years. The next step would be to create a research animal, probably a mouse. This would be followed by analysis of the animal to see how its brain and behavior are altered. "If the mouse talks, then the circumstantial evidence will be pretty good," joked Wolfgang Enard, Leipzig graduate student and lead author on the new paper. "It's unlikely, I would say."

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