Brain-delving boffins in key monkey-butler breakthrough
Inability of apes to understand drinks orders probed
In a development with potentially immense consequences in the important area of monkey* butlers, boffins have identified the crucial genetic differences which permit humans to employ speech and deny this ability to chimpanzees, our closest genetic cousins.
According to Dr Daniel Geschwind of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the reason that chimps can't understand orders for drinks lies in the gene FOXP2. Both humans and chimps have this gene, but in chimps it is different. If FOXP2 is mutated in humans, speech difficulties result.
"Earlier research suggests that the amino-acid composition of human FOXP2 changed rapidly around the same time that language emerged in modern humans," says Geschwind, currently doing a tour as a visiting boffin at King's College London. "We showed that the human and chimp versions of FOXP2 not only look different but function differently too," continues the prof. "Our findings may shed light on why human brains are born with the circuitry for speech and language and chimp brains are not."
Though the research involved slicing up human and chimp brains, neither species was harmed in the experiments - the brains were taken from owners who had died of natural causes, according to lab spokesmen.
By probing the brains, Geschwind and his colleagues determined that FOXP2 "switches other genes on and off". The other genes affected by FOXP2 are termed "gene targets".
"We found that a significant number of the newly identified targets are expressed differently in human and chimpanzee brains," Geschwind said. "This suggests that FOXP2 drives these genes to behave differently in the two species."
The first author of the research, postdoc Genevieve Konopka - also of UCLA - expands on the implications of the boffins' brain probe:
"Genetic changes between the human and chimp species hold the clues for how our brains developed their capacity for language," she says. "By pinpointing the genes influenced by FOXP2, we have identified a new set of tools for studying how human speech could be regulated at the molecular level."
Quite apart from perhaps imparting in mankind's future hominid servants the crucial ability to teach one another their duties, ("How many monkey butlers will there be?" "One at first, but he'll train others",) the scientists believe their work could lead to cures for autism and schizophrenia.
The research is published this week in prestigious boffinry mag Nature. ®
* We do know that chimpanzees aren't monkeys. But "chimpanzee butler" doesn't sound right, somehow.