Researchers led by Anthony Monaco at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, UK, have pinpointed the first gene to be definitively linked to language, in this week’s Nature (Vol. 413, No. 6855, 04 Oct 2001). The gene is mutated in the ‘KE’ family, some members of which have difficulty in controlling their lip and tongue movements, difficulty in forming words, and difficulty in using and understanding grammar.
The gene codes for a ‘transcription factor’: a protein that switches genes on and off. The genes it interacts with might therefore signpost the way through the genetic network of language learning and use. It is known to be active in brain tissue, and comparison of the gene’s activities in non-human species may reveal what special property of our brains gives us the ability to talk.
In an accompanying News and Views article, the author of the classic text The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, discusses the background and ramifications of this finding.
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