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Gene-Expression Tools Trace Evolution of Modern Human Language

BOSTON, Oct. 4 - Words, especially subtle differences in vocally uttered sounds and the shared meanings associated with them, are one of the things that set humans apart. But according to Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, language as we know it today may be a relatively new evolutionary wrinkle.

Speaking at TIGR's annual GSAC meeting here today, Pääbo said his group is preparing to kick off gene-expression research that will compare human genome sequences with those of chimpanzees and other primates to see whether modern language evolved in homo sapiens as early as 200,000 years ago.

"We want to see if there is evidence of some selective event that would have affected genes," said Pääbo, director of the Max Planck  Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, based in Leipzig, Germany.

The research, enabled by microarray analysis, is set to begin soon and will center on a mutation that affects a transcription factor that has already been linked to a specific human language disorder, according to Pääbo. This mutation, FoxP2 on chromosome 7, may be connected with an event in which a new favorable mutation quickly becomes incorporated into a species--in this case, one that enables the body and brain to work together to let the mouth do more than utter "ugh."


"We have to find the targets of this gene, what genes are turned on by this gene, what is turned on by the chimp version, the human version," said Pääbo.

"The mutation occurred and became fixed quite recently, within the last 200,000 years or so of human evolution, maybe more recently, it could have been 50,000 years; we can't say," he explained. Certainly, if research bears out this theory, modern language would have appeared millennia after homo sapiens diverged from Neanderthal, an event anthropologists contend occurred some 500,000 years ago.

"This is not the origin of language," said Pääbo. "There must have been vocal communication before that. This is the origin of modern, articulate language."

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