FOXP2 is a transcription factor implicated in the development and neural control of orofacial coordination, particularly with respect to vocalisation. [Thus, it is not really a "language gene" as indicated in many popular press reports.] Observations that orthologues show almost no variation across vertebrates yet differ by two amino acids between humans and chimpanzees have led to speculation that recent evolutionary changes might relate to the emergence of language. Echolocating bats face especially challenging sensorimotor demands, using vocal signals for orientation and often for prey capture. To determine whether mutations in the FoxP2 gene could be associated with echolocation, we sequenced FoxP2 from echolocating and non-echolocating bats as well as a range of other mammal species. We found that contrary to previous reports, FoxP2 is not highly conserved across all nonhuman mammals but is extremely diverse in echolocating bats. We detected divergent selection (a change in selective pressure) at FoxP2 between bats with contrasting sonar systems, suggesting the intriguing possibility of a role for FoxP2 in the evolution and development of echolocation. We speculate that observed accelerated evolution of FoxP2 in bats supports a previously proposed function in sensorimotor coordination.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
A "language gene" in echolocating bats
Slightly altered abstract from Li et al.: